From the Editor: What We Owe Students

By Cat Warren

Amazing sea-monkeys. X-ray specs. Invisible goldfish that remain invisible, absolutely as promised.

I thought of those affordable enticements from the backs of 1960s comic books with nostalgia as I read Daniel Golden’s excellent exposé in Bloomberg Businessweek on the recruiting techniques of a few for-profit colleges: trolling homeless shelters and welfare agencies for potential students desperate for a leg up, promising rewards richer than a glass of playful brine shrimp. One college provided biweekly stipends to students for attending class. Drake College of Business depends on federal support for 87 percent of its revenue, which suggests that its marketing effort was partially taxpayer funded. Its president told Businessweek that the college has suspended recruiting at homeless shelters, pending an investigation by its accreditor. Drake is not alone. Federal aid to for-profit colleges has increased nearly sixfold in the past nine years. A recent College Board study shows that the student debt load for more than half the bachelor’s degree earners at for-profits falls into the “high debt” range of at least $30,500 in cumulative loan burden. Defaults are rising for all student loans.

What do any of these suspect marketing practices, with a whiff of subprime lending, have to do with AAUP members? Or with traditional nonprofit colleges and universities? We never engage in empty promises, and surely there’s no connection between rising tuition and crowded classrooms at our institutions and the proliferation of the Phoenixes and Drakes and Chancellors. Forprofits— comprising 10 percent of higher education—are a deserving scapegoat. But those of us who work in nonprofit colleges and universities should also drive some of our own institutions’ suspect practices out into the desert.

Most of us, if asked what our responsibility is to students, will recite our teaching philosophy, our class preparation, our mentoring, our late nights reading and commenting on papers, and our e-mailing. Always the e-mailing.

It’s hard work. But it’s no longer enough. With some notable exceptions, faculty stand by and watch with learned helplessness and at times selfinterested silence as tuitions spike and students of modest means—the ones who need us most—fall out of our nonprofit or “state-assisted” higher education system or are never able to enter it. They are the students who, in desperation, respond to the Web ads: “You can pursue your dreams!” Financial aid officers are standing by for a live chat.

Peter Sacks, author of Tearing Down the Gates, is brutal in his assessment in this issue of Academe: “Colleges and universities operate as handmaidens to the inequality machine, fostering admissions and financial aid practices that systematically reward well-capitalized children and families at the expense of children unlucky enough to be born to the wrong parents.”

Students outside of our traditional colleges and universities mostly remain invisible. We may only occasionally look up and realize a student we saw the semester before has disappeared. Low-income, first-generation, and minority students are the losers, but so are we. Our classrooms are not the better for it. And it’s not going to get better without some real shifts in priorities. But U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in May reassured for-profit schools that they play a “vital role” in meeting President Obama’s “2020 Imperative” for more degreed boots hitting the pavement of Main Street. Public universities, he said, simply can’t meet the demand.

That doesn’t sound like reform. That sounds like subsidizing marketers of something more expensive than sea-monkeys.