Blog: Senators Should Play No Role in Determining Motivations for College

By Kevin Kuzma, Editor

One well-known — and universally frowned upon — fact about career training schools is that they advertise and draw students from the masses who watch daytime talk shows.

Politicians have been quick to mention where schools advertise to create a succinct picture of the people being appealed to in order to fill classrooms: The Maury Show, The Jerry Springer Show, and so on.

The vision comes relatively easily to us, too. We envision people not unlike the guests on these shows — lazy people with the munchies content to sit on couches and watch pointless interactions as their lives pass them by.

Whether or not this picture is accurate depends on the circumstances of each eventual student, I suppose. But our minds tend to jump to the worst case scenarios, which are often not anything like the actual people involved.

What is more important to note is that these talks shows are where the process begins, quite far from where it ends. This is the life that students who fit the for-profit school demographic want to leave behind. They pick up the phone and call or log on and submit their contact information because they want to leave their present life behind. They’ve found the motivation to find something better for themselves and their families.

For some of them, it might involve following a long, unfilled dream. But most, I would guess, are more likely to be realistic. Given the life they are escaping, they only want something more for themselves. We’re not talking mansions here, we’re talking a house of their own — someday — instead of an apartment; a career outside of waiting tables or bartending that their children can respect; dependable hours and dependable pay. Maybe their children, the next generation, can reach a little higher.

Some of their motivation might be fear: fear of wasting their lives, of bill collectors, of what might happen to them or their kids if they stay at home watching programs about paternity tests or people who have a legitimate fear of pickles (a “classic” episode of Maury once dealt with that topic.)

On Monday, standing on the Senate floor, Senator Tom Harkin (D – Iowa) used his own fear tactics to instill rage toward for-profit schools in his political allies. He offered an update on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee’s work to review the school’s marketing and recruitment practices for the last 6-8 months. The committee’s efforts and resulting reports have so far provided no suggestions for fixes, and have been mired in political rhetoric and potential violations of the US Constitution.

But Harkin’s comments steered the debate into new territory: what are legitimate motives for colleges to use to persuade students to enroll? He concentrated on two words that can bring alarm to even a casual conversation — terms he claims are central to for-profit schools’ recruitment approach: fear and pain.

The Senator began by reminding his colleagues that “for-profit colleges, mostly online, receive more than $26 billion in Federal student aid each year.” He followed that by mentioning widely reported data released last week from the Department of Education that “25 percent of for-profit college student loan borrowers default within three years of leaving school. One out of every four student loan borrowers who go to these for-profit schools defaults within three years of leaving school.”

Fear and pain are words that sound absolutely miserable as Harkin presents them. He paints for-profits as the exploiters of their audiences’ deepest fears. He said recruiters at some schools, particularly larger, publicly traded ones, make people feel inadequate for what they’ve accomplished (or haven’t accomplished) in their lives and offer an education at their school as a way to change it all.

As much as Harkin has focused on the for-profit education sector, he’s not welcomed any information to shed light on exactly who attends these schools and what truly motivates them to enroll. His view is an even more negative perspective on the very students and graduates he’s attempting to save. He sees the faculty and staff and for-profit schools, marketers or other businesses who conduct business with them, as vultures preying on the hopeful, imbecilic underclass of people. They are, in his mind, incapable of making decisions for themselves.

They fall prey to every ploy imaginable. They hand over money they worked hard for — or don’t yet have in hand — without a thought.

Focusing his comments on internal memos, email, and other materials used by recruiters at Kaplan, ITT, and others, Harkin said:

“The bottom-line finding of my committee’s investigation is that, No. 1, these schools are very expensive; No. 2, they are exploitative; and No. 3, these documents show they are focused on their own success—paying their shareholders if they are publicly held or paying back their equity investors if they are equity owned. They are not focused on the success of their students. The bottom line is that what we are confronting today with this tremendous explosion in for-profit schools, this tremendous explosion in their enrollment of students—as I said, Ashford in 2005, 350 students; today, 70,000 students— their tremendous churning of students that is going on every year— this has a striking resemblance to the subprime crisis that confronted America, a striking resemblance to the subprime crisis.”

There is fear in that final comparison. The subprime lending crisis was a disaster that cost the country billions of dollars, and Harkin is calling our memory to raise the same alarm.

This process is becoming old hat for Senator Harkin and it begins with setting. Either in a Senate hearing or on the floor of the Senate itself, he stands and offers the most condemning — and often degrading — criticism he can about the for-profit education sector. He uses the most damning statistics imaginable to paint the sector as a collection of cheaters who prey upon anyone who has a fault as their primary target audience. He spins the schools’ recruitment materials against them as an example of exactly how predatory they can be, and then asked his colleagues to consider the traditional colleges and universities they were familiar with and asked them to make direct comparisons between them and for-profit schools.

We know there is a difference between the two and the audiences they serve, but no matter.

Harkin was busy racing to the conclusion. His entire presentation was guiding us toward disbelief in an entire sector of education. He was calling on our memories of pain to entice us, using the exact same approaches he was lobbying against.

As much as Senator Harkin would have you believe, fear is an effective tactic. And, it’s also a realistic motivator for some students to make it through college. Some people – my self included – need to focus more on what we didn’t want to see happen — along with a few of the things we believe we could never have for ourselves or our families – to give us the willpower to make it through our time in college.

No matter what type of school it is, we go to college because of what we want to become and, to the contrary, what we fear. We see ourselves for what we could have — and what we would be without. While demographics can not necessarily explain what we believe in, they can explain what obstacles we might face due to race, income, and the places we live. For some of us, fear is a realistic motivator — and not always a negative one.

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