Adjuncting at a For-Profit

What is it like to adjunct at a for-profit? Does one drift to the “dark side” of academia, leaving behind the less-marbled halls of “pure” pursuit of academic arts for the more pedestrian pursuit of job skills? Is it as clear-cut as our fears often define it to move from tweed jackets to suit and ties?

With careful reading one can tease out that the stated goals of for-profits focus more on the achievement of measurable goals (the much-touted job skills which then allegedly equal promotions) than on instilling a sense of intellectual growth or of cultivating Classical Culture (art, music, etc.). The for-profits will, explicitly following their mission, work to cater specifically to their student’s specific career goals. They will be, in the vernacular of business, “customer-focused.”

“—Would you like fries with that?”

Saying that, I was hard-pressed to differentiate the goals of for-profits from those of the community colleges. Both groups emphasize achieving specific, job-training oriented programs that align with existing job descriptions (dental technician, information systems tech, etc.). They share, for the most part, the same target market, but, hopefully, with different methods and goals.

For our purposes, though, we will limit our discussion to jobs at institutions that aim to make a profit. Or, more pointedly, to best satisfy customer demands so as to foster a continued business relationship. Students equal buyers in this market; the customer is always right.

But let’s get specific. Try to identify the following mission statements as “private,” “for-profit,” or “state” institution. (Answers are at end of column.)

… strives to create knowledge, to open the minds of students to that knowledge, and to enable students to take best advantage of their educational opportunities

… to provide access to higher education opportunities that enable students to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their professional goals, improve the productivity of their organizations, and provide leadership and service to their communities

… to help individuals achieve their educational and career goals. We build futures one success story at a time

…to serve the people of […] and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future

…offers high quality education, workforce training, and enrichment programs reaching local and global communities.

At a certain point, the designation of “for profit” can, upon close inspection, slip into meaningless, amorphous semantics. All colleges will, to some degree, need to take in more than they give out in order to keep the doors open. Harvard University, with the largest endowment of any university ever, still charges a tuition, still asks its students to pay fees and still requires its graduate students to bring their own paper to make copies (at least at the Graduate School of Education library). “State” colleges and universities get local, state or federal subsidies, “private” or “religious” schools benefit from low-interest loans or grants, and all institutions need to operate in the black. So, in that loose sense, all colleges may be considered “for profit.”

My experience with working with a for-profit aligns specifically with online adjuncting (my on-ground adjuncting has always been with both private-non-profit or state colleges and universities), which may color my discussion somewhat. I did go through the “orientation/training” to teach on-ground at a certain for-profit. But, by the fourth week it became evident to both parties that we were not meant for each other.

In fact, the single most defining characteristic of for-profits, in my experience, has been the control of the curriculum. Since the institution is selling a product, quality control (it is a business modeled on best business practices) dictates that one control all steps of the supply-chain in order to ensure quality. This is great when one is producing cars, but not so much fun when, as an adjunct (hired without benefits, at-will firable, with “competitive” — read low — wages) you are expected to, factory like, show up, facilitate and move the product along. “Show, don’t tell” becomes “show up; don’t dwell.”

I have worked for two for-profits over the years, and with the emphasis on immediate classroom instruction that, at least in the student’s eyes, results in immediate job skills that garner pay raises, I had to significantly alter my teaching approach with each. I teach English, which as an adjunct almost exclusively reads as Composition (the rare time is that when an adjunct is given a literature course). For private-non-profit and state colleges, I am usually granted the latitude to explore ideas for their own merit on my way to teaching writing skills. I can assign papers with a “personal growth” component, often with the administration’s blessing. At the for-profits, such assignments were frowned upon if not outright banned. For-profit College One (FPcU1) renamed itself a University during my time with them, centralizing the curriculum (the second was always rigidly centralized) and “variation” or “personalization” of the material was actively discouraged.

For example, my course would assign, for the second submission, a Compare/Contrast paper where the student was to pick a place she had never been (I had caveats on personal safety), write up initial impressions, go the chosen place narrating the experience, and close with a contrast section. It followed the first submission where she was to tell a story of a past heroic deed. My idea was to build from something they knew about (personal narrative) to an assignment that began to incorporate more complex thinking narrative structure. I have had some really great submissions from this set of assignments, and I actually look forward to grading them (how often can one say that?).

Once FPcU1 centralized curriculum, my assignment was dismissed, replaced by: Read the Lecture on Argument and Logical Fallacies; Read About the Seminar on Critical Thinking and Logical Fallacies; Complete Internet Resource Assignment #1: Using the Library for Research; Complete the Exercise: Logical Fallacies and the Black Plague; Respond to the Discussion Question. Both my students and I lamented, were saddened, and soldiered on. I don’t recall one single submission that stuck with me from the Logical Fallacies and the Black Plague exercise.

I eventually moved away from adjuncting at the for-profits. My personal style, a bit contrarian, didn’t meld well into the mold. Even as a professional working full-time in a “real” career (one of the requirements to work for For-profit University Two (FPU2)), I wanted to feel more like an Instructor than a Manager. I wanted to interact with material in a personal basis rather than facilitate (down to the quarter-hour) centralized curriculum. It was not a good fit.

From this exercise, then, we should take a few specific ideas from our discussion:
As an adjunct, seek out those institutions with whom your individual set of values align — they vary widely, so check their Web sites, mission statements and call a couple of deans to pulse their approach to their adjuncts.

For-profits (like many CCs) will not primarily seek to promote the notions/tropes of Classical Culture as much as to train on demonstrable skills. If you are comfortable with that up-front, you will have an eager class awaiting your direction.

For-profits like to sell the “real-world” transferability of their degrees. Part of that is to market their instructors as part-timers “giving back” in their spare time (like volunteering at a soup kitchen, only getting paid). Understand and get comfortable with your position in order to reduce cognitive dissonance.

Do you have an experience to share? Do you have wisdom that may guide us along? Send us your thoughts for future adjunct columns.

Answers to Mission Quiz: 1: Private, Harvard College; 2: For-profit, The University of Phoenix; 3: For-profit, Kaplan University; 4: State, University of Michigan; 5. State, Bismark State College


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