Educational Wreckage and Salvation

In blogs, the writer must occasionally take into consideration watchful eyes. Not this time.


As a teacher who completed an MBA in 2010 (returning to school in 2003 after a nearly 20 year absence), reading Anya Kamanetz’s short book “DIY U” underscores what I see every day in the halls of a for-profit college. First, the organization is filling an educational gap – one our government has little political will to fix – and doing it ethically. Second, it is a losing battle, and Anya delivers on some of the reasons why. Her book reminds me of a succinct and more germane version of David Brooks’ “The Social Animal.” Brooks follows a fictional couple’s development from childhood through the interwoven fabric of social climbing based on advantages and privileges received in supportive, rather than dysfunctional, environments. There is no question, whether fictional or non, that success is based on these support structures that, by dint of their existence, disqualifies and denies access to that very underprivileged part of society needing it most.


For-profit education garners 25% of all federal aid to schools. Consider the 90/10 rule of the Higher Education Act of 1965, section 487(d)(4), under which “proprietary” (for-profit) higher education institutes must operate, or be denied Title IV funding eligibility. If more than 90% of revenue comes from federal aid – and for-profits arguably enroll more aid-needy students than not – then funding is cut off. The other 10% of revenue must come from other sources: i.e., cash payments from students, employee tuition reimbursement. To top it off, if Congress issues more student aid, most school tuition must rise to keep under this rule. These ironic predicaments cost the country not in jobs, which is a separate issue, but in other ways: higher incarceration (and thus spending on prisons), welfare, lost tax revenue, and a laundry list of other costs.


Ms. Kamanetz brings up drop-outs as the other controllable side of the coin, which, not surprisingly, for-profits look at with a fine-toothed comb. National Public Radio recently ran a five-part series addressing the factors that contribute to the nation’s high drop-out rate. They consider inner-city black and Hispanic populations as vulnerable due to poverty, broken homes, drugs, and gangs. Females drop to a high degree due to pregnancy and child care. Rural conditions contribute to high drop-out rates among whites. Military families and older students returning to school confront the twisting turns of sliced and diced education, where you have to be strong to stay in it.


Researchers at the National Institute for Literacy (2008) identify three main contributors to student success: skill, support, and opportunity. By opportunity, they mean folks taking advantage of pathways to get into and stay in school. These include funding, the availability of local programs, and such. Basic literacy skills nowadays means the ability to use technologies such as computers, software, and multifunction office equipment, but also clearly means the ability to communicate well in writing and speaking. Support plays the best and most pliant contributor to success, in my view. Why? When a person feels like giving up, a word with another who cares about their future may be all it takes. This is simply called intervention, and it is society’s part in bringing the outcast into the fold.


So what can we do about this train wreck? Kremenetz suggests that gap-filling on a per-student basis would take just a small amount of money, because the assumption is that classes are missed due to small stuff: a dead car battery, the baby sitter did not show, a missed bus. However, I imagine it is not so simple. There are always stragglers who claim the alarm didn’t go off. So, discipline is an issue. Can we constantly intervene for students who lack the spirit, who have to be cajoled to turn in papers? That’s pushing a square stone uphill. It’s easier to capture the Angel’s Share of spirits evaporating from the barrel.


What we can do as for-profits is fight for legitimacy, because our model is market driven, and we know that’s where all schools, public and private, are headed. Eventually, policy must change to allow a level playing field. Still, educational access is no panacea. Job creation in this age of globalization must lead, otherwise, what will graduates look forward to? Gratefully, without this nightmare, we’d collectively have nothing to strive for. It’s just that a great many of us wish we didn’t have to struggle quite so hard.




Silver-Pacuilla, H., & Reder, S. (2008, October). Investigating the Language and Literacy Skills Required for Independent Online Learning. National Institute for Literacy.


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