The Future of College Education

 

I am sitting in my office looking at a March 12, 2009 letter from the President of the University of Phoenix, William Pepicello, written as a letter to the editor to Business Week magazine in response to the magazines article entitled, “For-Profit Colleges: Scooping up the Stimulus”. The letter alleges that the article vilifies the private sector of education and goes on to angrily note that the article promotes the idea that the stimulus package by Obama for education, $85 billion dollars, will enrich the more than 2,000 for-profit colleges, when it in fact only replaces lost revenue by increasing Pell Grants.

The letter goes on to laud the University of Phoenix, a for-profit predatory college that exchanges on the New York Stock Exchange in an effort to profit off of Enlightenment principles of universal education for all, and repeats the often-heard claim by these schools: that they “calibrate their curriculum to the job market, expand their programs to fast growing occupations facing shortages, like health care, education and information technology and that they provide an “alternative for working people with flexible schedules” (Serving our Students: Stimulus or Not submitted to Business Week March 13, 2009). Sounds good, doesn’t it? Real social service, except it’s not true. The for-profit sector will get its hands on 16% of this $85 billion and also some of the $2,000 Obama allotted for students.

These institutions are little more than insidious RICO ‘suits’ waiting to be popped by some courageous prosecutor looking for some high level, deep pocketed perps (see my four part article at dissidentvoice.org. http://dissidentvoice.org/2009/12/private-predatory-colleges-how-the-neoliberal-alchemists-turn-debt-into-profit-and-citizens-into-fools/). Not only are the for-profit predatory colleges a disservice to the public, they are like private pike in a public lake, threatening to cipher off more and more of the public economic coffers so they can place themselves as the “primary provider” of education while the government entities that provide education at what is supposed to be no cost, sink deeper and deeper into decline becoming then the secondary providers. Sound like the health care debate? It is similar and it is already happening — take California. The University of Phoenix has paid $78.5 million to settle a whistle-blower lawsuit in Sacramento federal court after two former employees pressed the case based on violations of recruitment statutes – even when the federal government left it to them to go it alone and failed to help the case (dwalsh@sacbee.com, http://www.sacbee.com/courts/story/2395810.html Sacramento whistle-blowers to share U. of Phoenix settlement December 15, 2009 Sacramento Bee).

What the Sacramento Bee didn’t mention is that the settlement agreement involved a confidentiality agreement that assures the public will never know the grubby details of the universities illegal recruiting practices. But the for-profit college doesn’t care. Transparency and full disclosure are just words to be mouthed while there are profits sitting hungrily on the plate. So, Mr. William Pepicello, will you please come forward along with your cohorts. We as the public, who will pay the $78.5 million with Title IV monies your institution illegally received and continue to receive from the Department of Education, have a few questions. The settlement not only allowed the university to wiggle out of disclosing any of their squalid business practices which are notorious in the field, but it also allowed the attorneys to negotiate their fee of $11,000,000. But all this is the cost of doing business in the staggering empire of America.

 

Community colleges and state universities starve

 

Scott Lay, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Community College League of California, a nonprofit association of the state’s 72 public community college districts, and a fierce fighter for public education recently wrote:

In addition to this explosion of high school grads, California had nearly 2.3 million unemployed residents in October, with about 1.3 million of these attributable to the current recession. Across the state, community colleges report surging enrollment as unemployed workers looking for retraining and skill building arrive on campus. Unfortunately, the arrival of this dual test of our state’s higher education system could not be more ill timed. In response to nearly $2 billion in state cuts to higher education over the last two years, the California State University announced recently that it was eliminating 40,000 admission slots over the next eighteen months, and classes for nearly 110,000 full-time students are expected to be eliminated in the state’s community colleges. Government cutbacks are occurring across the board.  This is a national challenge that requires a corresponding solution. President Obama has challenged our nation to recapture the global lead in the proportion of our population achieving a college degree by 2020. From our nation’s position of the world’s seventh in the percentage of 18-34 year olds enrolled in college, we have a long way to go (Scott Lay December 15, 2009, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Community College League of California, a nonprofit association of the state’s 72 public community college districts).

Sure, this is all true. Once again all this public devastation, this crumbling of the public infrastructure, this is all great news for the predatory proprietary colleges who make their money off of the fact that the disaster economics wrought by fundamentalist capitalism has left communities and their public institutions bankrupt, if not cash-strapped or awash in debt (see my four part article at dissidentvoice.org. http://dissidentvoice.org/2009/12/private-predatory-colleges-how-the-neoliberal-alchemists-turn-debt-into-profit-and-citizens-into-fools/)

Lay goes on to bemoan the college dropout rate when considering the issue of student fees increasingly spiraling upwards to attend these institutions. Lay notes: Of course, any fee proposal will be met with opposition from absolutists on all sides, but several legislators I’ve talked to would like to take the lead and define a long-term fee policy. Obviously, in this economic environment, we need to be extraordinarily careful about sending the wrong message with a significant fee increase. Californians are very concerned with college affordability and access, as identified in the recent PPIC poll. The New York Times yesterday reported http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/10/education/10graduate.html?_r=1 on a new Gates Foundation-funded Public Agenda study citing economic reasons for most college dropouts (Scott Lay December 15, 2009, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Community College League of California, a nonprofit association of the state’s 72 public community college districts).

The report Lay is referring to is charmingly entitled “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them,”, and was based on a recent survey of more than 600 individuals aged 22 to 30, comparing those who started a college education but did not complete it with those who received a degree or certificate from a two- or four-year institution. The report’s sponsor? Surprise, the Gates Foundation, the subsidiary of the Department of Education under Arne Duncan or is it vice versa?

Gates himself is a big player in the national charter school movement, another privatization fait acompli for the philanthro-capitalists and the Wall Street money-changers. The report, among other things, states that:

Most dropouts leave college because they have trouble going to school while working to support themselves, according to a report released Wednesday by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research group. While 2.8 million students enroll in some form of higher education each year, most do not proceed straight through to graduation. Only one in five of those who enroll in two-year institutions earn an associate degree within three years, and only two in five of those who start four-year colleges complete their degrees within six years. In closing, the report ominously warned that “colleges need to be aware that only about a quarter of those enrolled in higher education fit the popular image of a college student living in a dorm and attending classes full time. Almost as many have dependent children (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/10/education/10graduate.html?_r=1 College Dropouts Cite Low Money and High Stress).

This ideological preparation or messaging to the public is that not all students should go to college. Gates has been advocating the abolition of high school and 12th grade for some urban schools, along with militarization and cutting special education (Tough Choices Tough Times, 2007).

Yes indeed, life under the no-liberal capitalist regime of the last thirty or so years, has deeply and negatively affected the lives of young people, senior citizens, students, consumers, children, their parents and just about everybody else except the fat cats that have created and continue to maintain the exploitative system. Denying students access to college due to financial hardship is just one of the built in benefits of what is known as free market capitalism; the other is debt peonage for fantasy jobs that don’t exist but are part of the counterfeit dreams peddled to students who pay up towards $86,000 for a Home Land Security degree. It is like denying health care to those who cannot afford it or driving them into bankruptcy due to the fact they have drained their savings by giving to insurance companies; it is a national and moral outrage.

But Lay is no fool; he also goes on to note the big problem:

 

Nevertheless, even in this environment, students are transferring from our colleges to University of Phoenix in ever-growing numbers, where they are willing to spend $450/unit plus an $85 per course materials fee for equivalent lower division classes. This is particularly true with African-American and Latino students, and many are transferring not to get a bachelor’s, but rather to complete their lower division. Meanwhile, in University of Phoenix’s 2009 Annual Academic Report released Monday, they report only a 31% success rate for students seeking an associate’s degree (and only modestly better for bachelor degree attainment). How is Phoenix convincing students that they are getting a markedly better education than they would get at a California community college at a cost differential of $5,400 per semester? The author Seth Godin might say that Phoenix has defined their educational product-and it is indeed a product-as a purple cow . They are winning the marketing argument that says, “don’t worry, we cost more, but we’re different than all the rest.” (Master plan, fees, and purple cows, December 10, 2009, Soctt Lay e-mail to Hancock College, California)

So what’s the point? The point should be clear: community colleges and state colleges along with universities now need to compete with the private for-profit colleges that spend upwards to 50% of their income on marketing. See, this is how we as public citizens lose; we draw the wrong conclusions and thus enter the debate disarmed. By capitulating to public competition with the for-profit sector community colleges and state colleges we are asking that citizens compete for services when the services are supposed to be public. Any public competition could never reconcile the inherent contradictions in the for-profit system of education such as cost cutting, union breaking, dummied down curriculum, high fees and tuition and mass marketing that make up the business plans. The time has come to directly fight for public education not for the right to compete with private retailers of commodified curriculum and learning.

Entering the correct debate: declassifying education as a commodity and pointing the finger at capitalism as a failed economic system

Defining the “educational product” is not what is needed now, what is needed now is to define the educational and socio-economic debate; what the times call for now is a clear and straightforward understanding of how capitalism actually works — the system of market fundamentalism that has transferred public wealth to the private sector at rapid speeds and show it impacts communities and public institutions. Education is certainly not alone in bearing the brunt of the damage; we’ve seen the privatization of almost everything within the last thirty years from mercenaries to prisons. In so doing the system has bankrupted what were once notable public institutions and forced them into a race to the bottom they simply can never win. The tragedy is that we are not looking at capitalism with clear and open eyes but through bleary, half-opened and often disillusioned shutters.

As the New York Times article notes, it is the stress associated with work and the lack of it and how all this is impacting the American student and their families more than anything else. A system that cannot employ people who wish to work, that asks that productivity goes up decade after decade while wages continually decline, that gives large tax breaks and bonuses to the rich while the working class suffer with health care costs and bankruptcy; what kind of criminal system is this and how can anyone expect it to offer any educational services let alone money or ideas?

The public needs to begin to look at what education really means for a society that wishes to be democratic. What the goals and objectives of such an education would be, not simply treat education as another commodity. What is needed now is bold citizenship education and direct action, something not taught in the office buildings that house many of the for-profit colleges. The shame is that Americans know so little about how their instituitions are shaped, who governs them, how the institutions are financed, how they are then asset-stripped (as in the case of public education); nor do many understand how power works to translate the need for private profits into public life at the expense of working families and their children. With out this understanding no education is possible. We as adults must now stand up and become the students we think we service.