On Education


The "For Profit" Education Industry:
What Else Is New?

Roy Lisker
February 1,2005

On a recent 60 Minutes presentation (Sunday, January 30), the for-profit "career education" industry was called on the carpet and trampled for its grossly dishonest business practices. The program's investigation focused on the Career Education Corporation (over $1.6 billions in yearly revenue) .

CEC was accused of painting a rose-colored and knowingly false picture of career possibilities to lower income and minority applicants; of promising job-assistance that never materialized, for jobs that didn't exist; of lowering admission standards to the point that virtually anyone able to obtain thousands of dollars in student loans would be admitted ; of promising training in skills that was never given; of passing students through the program and graduating them regardless of their performance; of doing nothing to relieve the burden of debt on graduates who, after a decade found themselves working at Wal-Mart or the equivalent. Among the many angry graduates interviewed by 60 Minutes was a shirt salesclerk at GAP who was being promoted to customers as someone with a degree in fashion design!

We do not dispute that this is an unscrupulous industry that should be reined in, called to account, and subject to more stringent laws. What surprised us in the 60 Minutes expose is the fact that a virtually identical profile, with similar charges of malfeasance, can be made against most if not all of the colleges and universities in the United States at the present moment.

Pick up one of those overstuffed glossy brochures from just about any college. You will discover descriptions of rosy futures permanent barred to young adults without college degrees; good jobs are dangled like enticing apples on the branch, their quality varying in direct proportion to the clout of the institution. Although it is not guaranteed that graduates will ever get such jobs, the idea is inculcated by means subtle and not so subtle, that without the degree they are virtually unattainable. All colleges and universities lower standards as a function of the pocketbook or "standing" of the families of their prospective students, though the extent to which this is done varies from place to place. The knowledge transmitted in the college classroom generally has little relation to what one needs to know to compete in the job market, nor does higher education form adults with an increased general capability for correct thinking and enhanced awareness. And most institutions are chronically dependent on federal subsidies and generous student loan programs to cover their bills. The difference between these industries (for-profit career education, and for-profit academic education) is clear. The $15.4 billion "for-profit career education" industry targets working-class youth, promising them a better future within the working class ( health care; computers; secretarial; cosmetology, etc...). The ( many times over) multi-billion "for-profit academic" industry targets the children of the middle class, promising them a miraculous scrap of paper that will serve as a permanent meal ticket in the competitive market for middle-class jobs.

The roots of this tragedy lay deep in the philosophy underlying elementary education. It is in the nature and interest of education for middle-class children that they be indoctrinated in incompetence. Someone able to perform tasks competently is, by definition, a "worker", therefore a member of that working class from which middle class parents want their children to be shielded. (One would think that such class-biased education would at least emphasis a firm grasp of "reading, writing and arithmetic", but, as the sorry accounts of more English department teachers than I dare enumerate have indicated to me, the level even in these basic subjects has descended abysmally over the past 3 decades.)

There is a chance that high-school or college drop-outs will find themselves doing construction work, house painting, restaurant work, hospital orderly jobs, janitorial work, or even set themselves up in business, go into performing arts, all professions one can access directly without the need of a college degree, at which they may become very capable at doing difficult tasks with skill and intelligence. Since these crafts and professions are despised or held of little worth by the academic world, which has such a stranglehold over thought and opinion ( Look for example at the galleries of academic "experts" called upon to give their worthy opinions night after night on the Jim Lehrer show), persons who have gone directly to their careers at an early age carry the lifelong stigma of failure for never having gotten the basic education that would have "opened doors" for them, doors as mythical as the 3 doors of the classical mathematics puzzle of the 2 goats and the pot of gold (The Monte Hall paradox, Marilyn vos Savant's unique claim to fame.)

The reality is that, to a large extent, elementary education in "quality" schools so handicaps a student through withholding exposure to and training in fundamental work habits and attitudes, (of the sort which can be applied to any sort of task), that persons who go through elementary and high schools in affluent communities, (or in the far inferior schools in poor communities where it is assumed that education won't matter much as preparation for later life) find themselves, upon graduation unable to do much of anything.

At this point society steps in and offers a solution to the despairing graduate: More Education! Loving and responsible middle class parents are led to believe that, by paying gargantuan sums in tuition and basic living expenses for four years of further education for them, their children will come out with a certificate that guarantees them a good job for life, apart from any competence , knowledge or ability they may have. Above all, by virtue of the diploma they will always maintain a significant advantage over other children of the same age who invested their early adulthood in actually learning how to do something well.

College and university administrators are well aware of these social realities, which they exploit with boundless cynicism. Institutions shamelessly promote the idea that a degree from their institution will have more clout than that from most other institution in the same category, vaunting a state college over a community college, a private university over a state college, an Ivy League university over other universities , a big university that happens to belong to the handful of research institutions which get the lion's share of money from the NSF over all other big universities, etc. Even the community college will promote the idea that its name will be of more assistance of finding a good job than some dinky degree from a branch of Creative Education Corporation! (Let us grant them that much.) By and large the content of education is, more and more, frankly looked upon as, if not irrelevant, then as far less relevant than the standing of the school from which it was obtained.

A certain percentage of the graduates of this ludicrous enterprise, among them the more intelligent, will always be strongly encouraged to enter the teaching profession, to assume their honorable duty as the supporting pillars of a system that rendered them incapable of doing anything else.

Return to

Home Page