Blog: Media’s Negativity is Cathartic … and Repetitive

This is the ugliest it’s been. The last two weeks for career colleges haven’t been murder exactly, but you could say they’ve been attempted murder. Scathing critiques of career colleges and the "for-profit" model of education have come in the form of documentary-style films on PBS, college newspaper editorials, and between the usually light and airy photos of designer kitchens and open living rooms in Good Housekeeping Magazine. Everyone who can take a shot at career education, it seems, has now taken one. The animosity is building, and so is the momentum — but building toward what?

In a few weeks, the Department of Education (ED) will enact its regulatory measures on the career college sector. Some analysts have suggested the sanctions could reduce the industry’s size by a third. Lobbyists are trying as best they can to keep the Obama administration from tinkering too heavily with a sector of higher education that doesn’t need dramatic tinkering. Everyone else is passing the time until the ED announces its decisions by reading about how crooked the industry is and how innocent students and even the homeless are preyed upon – knowing what they’re reading is, at best, off base, but mostly terribly inaccurate. Welcome to the awkward phase for career colleges. And typically, awkward phases are not a time anyone wants to remember – and they also happen to be the times your mom is standing by the mantle with camera ready. This is ugly, like you’ve never seen before and you don’t want to see again.

The media machine started chugging full blast in March. I don’t need to retrace it all for you. The New York Times started in with its assertion in April that career colleges “lured” students in to inflate their debt and leave them with degrees worth as much as the free pens at college career fairs.  The report offered pure anecdotal criticism and seemed to open the floodgates on for-profit education bashing. With it, all subjectivity went out the door. Last week, the negativity reached an apparent climax with PBS’ FRONTLINE documentary, College, Inc. The program did its best to showcase career education and the issues it faced.

The usual detractors were as vocal as usual. PBS’ FRONTLINE program showcased anecdotes from a few dissatisfied students and the usual lobbyists for traditional colleges, like Barmak Nassarian. But the show wound up surprisingly muddled, using one of the sector’s most creative and flamboyant entrepreneurs to represent the for-profit education sector. PBS’ report was like producing a special on vocal music and relying on David Lee Roth as source material. Yes, he has a microphone, he has an audience, and technically he sings – but there’s a lot more screaming, jumping, and ass-shaking than there is vocal performance. I like Dave. He’s fascinating.  He warrants his own show, though. And, so do the Michael Cliffords of the world.

On May 10, a seemingly arbitrary story was posted on New University. The college news publication offered its take on the for-profit education model by obviously watching the FRONTLINE broadcast and coming to no conclusions that the documentary didn’t already make. I’m impressed that they would feature such a cerebral editorial about a topic that doesn’t impact a single student on campus. I’ve been a college newspaper editor, and I can tell you, it would have been a battle for me to convince my fellow editorial board members that my fellow students would read an 800-word-plus diatribe on a type of college they chose not to attend, and care nothing about.

Relying on the same anecdotal diatribe, Barry Yeoman’s article in the June issue of Good Housekeeping, called “School of Hard Knocks”, rendered yet another inaccurate picture of how our schools operate and what their missions are in improving students’ lives. The negative articles never outweigh the positive ones, and we all know the reality is that far more students have had pleasurable experiences at our schools or the industry as we know it would have folded long ago. Where we stand today is a vastly different place than failure – we’re the fastest-growing segment in education.

Whether or not the sanctions handed down by the ED are especially harsh, all the input from the news media has done little to shape the decisions on Capitol Hill. The reports, which make the same points and are offered in the same style, feel more cathartic, as though educators at traditional colleges and universities are letting loose one last primal scream before the ED makes its announcement. The reports aren’t genuine enough to form a strong front to realign the sector as we know it.

These journalists were indoctrinated by the four-year school of thought, like I was, and have probably never stepped foot inside a career college. I know I’d never considered where my Dental Assistant went to school before I started working here. The real essence of a journalists’ work is to put themselves into the lives of other people, to tell their stories, and they have so far refused to that with today’s career college students.

My biggest problem with this is how amazing those stories are and what interesting reading they would make. Imagine all the challenges your students have faced and overcome in completing their educations – in making something of themselves. Those stories are lost, never told, and it’s my inclination to believe journalists everywhere would be appalled at their own work and negligence in overlooking them. There seems to be more repetition than actual research in the negative pieces I’ve read. If career education is an industry that might need some re-shaping, we are not alone in this.  Our news media could take a similar awkward snapshot.

By Kevin Kuzma, Editor, Career College Central

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