By Kevin Kuzma, Editor
The townspeople call it "downtown," but the area they speak about is a few red-brick buildings situated at an intersection, on opposing streets. The town itself is a pass-through on Kansas City’s south side — as far out as the suburban rings go before the houses turn to even smaller towns or, if it’s blessed with especially good fortune, a decent-sized community with a college.
The highway narrows at Gardner, Kan., and the speed limit slows, and then the road comes to these opposing red-brick buildings at an intersection. During the holidays, the windows are filled with Christmas trees and above the awnings, the signs for the businesses are dark. Past the town, the road goes out about a quarter-mile, the speed limit picks up and there’s nothing more but soy bean fields, wheat, and Wichita until the Colorado Mountains 13 hours to the west.
The small business owners are close here. They have a downtown business association. They trade services. The auto repair shop offers free pedicures from the salon next door to women who bring their cars in and have to wait.
When Christmas comes on, though, the business people abandon the town and their storefronts for two weeks — the one before Christmas and the one leading to the New Year. The downtown still smells like any larger city would, like exhaust from diesels that pass and construction trucks. The traffic lights are almost always green unless someone leaves the library from a side street. The business of checking out books is the only one not slackened by the holidays, and there are some townspeople — a minority, to be sure, but still a number — who believe the reason has to do with the devilish messages in the books and the atheists who come to check them out.
The library is full with a different type of patron now. These are the sort that don’t check out books unless they have something to do with resume or cover letter writing. These people come to sit at computer terminals. They go to this library to use the internet to search for jobs. Some of them have been to other libraries to hear speakers with business backgrounds offer advice about where and how to find jobs. Many of these speakers were once better employed, and they offer advice for free, which is helpful, but not the final solution some hope it will be.
The people are from all walks of life, all races and the gender ratio appears to be even. This is the public face of misfortune, probably even more evident than the crowds at unemployment offices, which many of us never have occasion to see. They are apparent to me because I frequent the library a few times a week. I know the crowd. I noticed them yesterday while checking out a few books at lunch time at the library nearest my office. I see them sending off resumes after 8 at the library just a few blocks from my home.
For the last few weeks, they’ve been on my mind. I’ve seen them. I come to work and I follow the news about the economy and what’s been happening in our sector. The news the last few weeks has been overwhelming negative. The ball started rolling downhill when the Government Accountability Office’s report was found to be inaccurate or falsified, depending on your viewpoint.
Ever since, we’ve seen report after report blasting for-profit schools. Bloomberg alone has featured four scathing, in-depth reports in the last two weeks. The article beneath the headline “For-Profit Colleges Charging More While Doing Less for Low-Income Families” only told a small portion of the challenges low-income students face in trying to obtain a college education. The same story brought forth a new group of disgruntled students to rail on for-profit education.
These stories never offer information about the thousands of recent graduates who have benefitted from their educations, the stricter rules for-profit colleges must adhere to, or the demographic that attend for-profit schools, thereby making loan defaults more likely than at other types of institutions of higher learning.
With the Department of Education scheduled to release the final gainful employment rule language this month, brace yourself for a month of nasty news coverage. You are going to see the blitz of all media blitzes as journalists buy into the current administration’s agenda. While the DOE busies itself protecting us by revamping higher education, more people within our sector will lose jobs and less people will graduate with career training and college degrees.
Meanwhile, the number of people with real problems and the humblest of goals — that of finding work — will grow. More people will need real answers from people in power to save them. They are trying to find solutions to the same problem in big cities and small towns, even the ones that need a fresh rain-shower, puddles and the reflection of traffic lights to seem bigger than they are.