The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As a teacher, I fought predatory for-profit schools from the inside

While admissions counselors are recruiting students to fill for-profit classrooms, the programs’ costs are burdening graduates with debt after they leave. (Joel van Houdt for The Washington Post)

It happened the same way that anyone falls in love: the slow build of excitement, the sheer anticipation of each day propelling you forward, the blind haze of overwhelming joy clouding all reason and logic.

I developed a passion for teaching at a for-profit school in Southern California, and it was exhilarating. My students were inquisitive, thoughtful, and eager to share their ideas. Many were first-generation Americans, and many more were the first in their families to attend college.

But, as it happens, the haze of new love soon lifted.

My students began opening up to me about the incredible amounts of debt they were incurring. For some, this was tens of thousands of dollars each year. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that the cost of my bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees from public schools was adding up to less than half the cost of their bachelor’s degrees in business administration, criminal justice or graphic design.

The realization was uncomfortable: I was a part of a business relying on the exploitation of college dreams for money. I won’t name my former employer here. It’s not worth any potential retribution from system leaders that could affect my ability to get jobs in education and continue working to improve the system. This story is not isolated to one campus. Students are exploited through the for-profit education industry at hundreds of online and on-the-ground campuses every day.

Initially, I deflected students’ inquiries about the cost of my own education. But I knew silence helped no one. As a faculty member, I saw two options: continue supporting the status quo, or take steps to help my students empower themselves. So I began sharing education options with them, and the reality that education doesn’t have to come at this price.

When students approached me with concerns about paying for school, I spoke openly and honestly about the cost of education at different institutions. I pulled up Web sites for public colleges and said, “Let’s sit down and see how much it is for you to go to school there.” When students came to me interested in less-expensive degrees at city colleges or the state university system, we went through the pros and cons of each program together. I reviewed personal statements and served as an academic reference.

I encouraged them to explore their options. These were their questions, their decisions, and it was their right to consider education beyond the for-profit system.

Some transferred, or at least tried to. Most students found that the units they accrued would not transfer to local community colleges or state universities. In one case, as an extra measure, a student asked me to write letters to accompany each class syllabus in hopes of securing course equivalencies at another school. After weighing his options, another student transferred despite leaving completed units behind.

Still others decided to stay. For them, for all my students, I put everything I had into teaching. I made my courses sharper, my pedagogy more engaging and my lessons more community-based. I agreed to lead the loathed faculty trainings in hopes that my enthusiasm would mask my growing unease that my students deserved so much more from their institution and from me. I received stellar class reviews, campus faculty recognition, and was nominated for a national teaching award.

But I’d never felt so torn.

Culturally higher education is synonymous with success in the United States, and a college degree has become necessary to compete in the labor force. Proponents of for-profit colleges – from Kaplan University to DeVry — align themselves with the solution, pointing to the number of degrees made possible through their open-enrollment programs. I’ve seen and shared that joy with students on graduation day — the pure elation and thrill that comes as they walk the stage, the future a constellation of possibility.

However, this idea sidesteps reality. The inherent design of these schools explicitly puts profits over students. At for-profit colleges across the country, a portion of the campus is devoted to the sales department – a collection of nondescript, cubicle offices where a chorus of voices perpetually echoes the merits of “career-focused education” to prospective students.

The struggle weighed heavily on me, and still does. Once you know, how do you un-know? Maybe ignorance is bliss. The easy solution: find another job. But then what happens in the world of for-profit schools? The ball keeps bouncing, students still enroll, and the exploitative cycles continue. Students deserve college opportunities, but as one for-profit system after another is investigated by the Education Department, it is increasingly clear this is not the way.

I did eventually move on, at least physically. I moved to pursue a doctorate in a different county. But my heart is always with these students. I keep in touch with many of them, watching as their lives take new turns, and seeing their families grow. I’m a listening ear for some about crushing student debt and a supportive reference to others on the job hunt. My love for teaching has only grown stronger over the years. And so too has my commitment to supporting educational justice, in any way that I can.