Monday, May 27, 2013

The New Bubble is Bursting

In 2010, I was hired by the world's largest private, for-profit "university" on the planet. I interviewed for this job for two reasons: 1) I needed a paycheck. (Let's be honest, that is the first reason for every job you've ever held and certainly this is true for most people. 2) I wanted to work with students, I wanted to assist people in moving towards a better life for themselves. I believed that everyone deserved a higher education, regardless of their situation. I knew it could mean a much better life. Be certain, though-I was neither the angel nor the devil in this situation. I started training the next month.

In the three weeks it took them to indoctrinate train me in the ways of enrolling students from one set of courses to another, I learned a great many things about higher education that my own degree had not set out for me, not only how very much it could cost, but also how desperate 'for-profit' schools were to earn that very name for themselves. All the rhetoric about making sure your students were ready to move on to their 3rd year of school was just words to fill the training room, because once you were doing the real job, you learned that a heartbeat meant they were ready. Your job was to convince them to do the application and get the federal student funding ball rolling.

I had my first realization about how bad the situation was as soon as I learned the cost. Being a fairly frugal person, I did the math in my head and realized there was a problem. I then began working with the average student that would attend said "university" and learned about their courses and the work expected of them. My heart sank when I realized my job was to get people to enroll into a program that would cost upwards of $35K after they had just spent $23K+ to do the first two years, totalling $58K, not coincidentally, the total amount of student loans you can take from the Federal government was roughly $58,500 at that time. 

When you see that many of the students are eligible for Pell grants and are extremely eager to get their refunds of the excess money, you realize how powerless you are to pull the plug on everything. The school starts courses every week, the students don't have to do placement or entrance exams, write lengthy application essays or pay application fees, wait in lines for advisors or admissions offices or months to apply to a program, therefore they get in the courses and get their money quickly.

I grew frustrated with the students who had potential to do so much better and go to a public university in their own state and pay less, while earning a better education, however they wanted to go to school online and so would pay the outrageous amount. The worst part was knowing that their education would not prepare them for interviews, public speaking or critical thinking needed for the best jobs in their field. My frustration was even worse with management that asked me to push students towards programs that we did have, instead of telling them to go elsewhere for the one they really wanted. I could not do that.

Needless to say, I did not last long in that job. If you've read this blog for any length of time, you know that I have had many jobs. Leaving this particular one, however, was the biggest weight off my shoulders. I would drive to work every day listening to yet another story about how the company that wrote my check was being sued, feel sick about what it was that I was supposed to do, then walk in from my car while clenching my fists. I knew how bad it was, I just didn't know how bad it was for me.  I tried yoga, going to the gym, drinking, writing, nothing seemed to shut it off. I was miserable and I was beginning to turn in on myself. I became an unruly force at work, telling people exactly what I thought of them, disappearing for long periods of time and giving my students the phone number to their local community college campus to get the information they really needed.

I left in early 2011. The timing could not have been better. Shortly afterwards, we learned that my stepfather was terminally ill and he died very quickly. Being unemployed for that period of time allowed me to be there for important decisions and take care of arrangements, not to mention to grieve and not put on a face for other people who didn't care and were not interested in my pain. Because my personal life turned upside down so quickly after leaving my job, I did not give much thought to what was happening there again for a while.

Time changes a lot of things, though. I am again working for a school. This one is a public community college district and this time, I am not in a position to advise students on a particular program or course of study. My job is completely removed from the loans they are taking out and the grant money getting funneled to the school for their studies. But I am always watching and I see something happening that I predicted three years ago: the student loan bubble is beginning to burst. My old employer has made swift and startling changes to keep in line with federal policy and to change the name they made for themselves It is all too little, too late. The only thing they will affect is their bottom line.

So many of the students that passed through their virtual doors graduated into an economic recession or dropped out entirely. Without the help of a decent degree, a college alumni office or career center, they floundered about, never making enough money to start paying off those loans. There are literally millions of them. Those loans are getting bigger through the magic of compound interest. The likelihood of them getting paid back is inversely proportionate. 

The bubble is enormous. Who is to blame? The students for taking the loans? The schools for convincing them with every legal method that it was a good idea? Who will we bail out this time? The schools owe no money. The debt is to the United States government. We have the most divided Congress in history. Will we take the steps to stop predatory schools? Will we bail out students who have no hope of paying back an ever-increasing loan? Consumers never come out ahead in these deals.

I paid less than half of the cost these students pay. I attended a well respected public state university and have been able to maintain steady employment ever since. Even when I left a job in a terrible economic climate without a back up plan. I feel terrible for people who did not get out of their education what they really needed. I feel even worse for their future and the money they will be expected to pay, with the least chance of making it. Their salaries will be among the lowest, while their debt will be enormous.

The most unexpected thing I learned about higher education was that while yes, I still believe everyone deserves a higher education, the truth is that many are not prepared for one. They cannot do basic course work, manage a class or two at a time, write the papers, or do the research needed to found their arguments. We may have to scale back this plan to give everyone a higher education. And not because they don't need it. Its because they are not prepared for it. Which raises questions about public schools, of course. That argument is for another day though.

Right now, it would be wise to remember what happened with housing. Get your umbrella, the shit is hitting the fan.

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