The most precious commodity in Las Vegas isn’t a little extra gambling money tucked away in a suitcase or tickets to a Garth Brooks show. Actually, it’s something many travelers willfully do without: sleep.
My room at this year’s Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU) Convention & Exposition at Mandalay Bay was on the 28th floor. The window faced a small airport a quarter-mile away where, day and night, airplanes of all sizes made swift but noisy arrivals and departures. The planes were seemingly drawn in over the low-lying mountains and then out again over the desert on one continuous zip line.
Apparently, people couldn’t arrive – or depart – fast enough to discover their luck or see it lost as quickly as they could lay their money down. Millions upon millions of our fellow Americans have bought into the fantasy of Las Vegas. The city itself thrives on a get-rich-quick energy and an anything goes theme on morality.
Good or bad, luck is definitely out there in the desert. If you believe in instant magic, it can be found on the card tables and the roulette wheel, the arms of the slot machines, and in the fantastic glow of the lights on the strip. But the façade is easier to see through when you are there in the golden rise of the Mandalay building or some other casino.
This is the mode I was in – the process of sorting the real from the phony – when I read Salon.com's take on the APSCU convention, published to coincide with its opening day. The “report” was merely the latest and the most heinous in a long line of nonsense to be written about career education.
Thankfully, it was brief. Andrew Leonard’s piece in Salon.com carried a flamboyant headline: “For-profit colleges party in Vegas.” A few people mentioned it to me on the convention floor, though it sounded as though they hadn’t read anything more than the headline. They all spoke about it with a smile and headshake. A few hours later, another convention goer summarized it in only slightly more detail.
"The article says we’re basically partying it up in Vegas … you know, reminiscing about the growth of our sector during the Bush era,” he said. I could tell he hadn’t read much more than the headline.
These were the unfortunate conversations that pervaded the convention. While some industries might wake up on the mornings of their annual conventions to major newspaper articles written about their organization’s focus on finding solutions to its steepest challenges, the career education sector was subjected to yet another non-researched and unsubstantiated “news” article that takes broad shots at the entire sector.
You know the sort. The career college sector has been blasted regularly in the media, especially The Huffington Post as of late. There’s an unending list of other media outlets and blogs that take shots at the "for-profit" education sector. The term itself is meant as a slight to the executives in the business of educating students in specific trades, many of these learners who are older students and eventual first-time graduates. Many of the reports carry disheartening statistics about dropout numbers and defaults without any explanation of who these students are, where they come from, and why the numbers might be as they are.
There seems to be a great deal of “they” in these pieces – “they” being the dark and greedy school groups whose primary mission is to provide a poor education to students in an effort to steal their financial aid money and abandon them to enormous loads of unforgivable student debt (as I type that sentence, that notion has never seemed more ridiculous). These reports sometimes refer to “a few bad apples” in the career education sector, but that phrase gets dumped quite often and becomes the entirety of the "for-profits."
Accuracy and fact, though, are not the aim of these articles. The purpose is to demean and discredit the work of the sector in an effort to steer students into other educational options, such as community colleges and traditional colleges. Never mind that the style of learning at those institutions might not be engaging or the best suited for these students who prefer a more hands-on style.
When I read Leonard’s article, it was meant as a short, quick blast of career colleges for the location in which they host their convention and convention sessions in, which he suggested were aimed at learning how to skirt new regulations rather than comply.
Granted, Vegas carries with it its own connotations of seediness and risk, but those who are looking for that can easily find it in any major American city. South Beach, New Orleans, Chicago, Orlando, New York … it’s there. If the group in attendance is tied to a large business sector, it’s likely business, regulations and, of course, politics are going to be on the table. And wherever a convention is held – for the most part, no matter what organization is hosting the convention – there will be those who celebrate with a drink.
While I can’t claim to be a part of every conversation at the convention, I can tell you that former president Bush was seldom a conversation topic, unless the subject was whether or not we’d be traveling or able to stick around on the convention’s final day to see his address. Mr. Leonard forgot to mention that APSCU hosted former president Bill Clinton a few years earlier for a similar end-of-convention event.
There was certainly no reminiscing about the 2000s. This is a forward-thinking sector by nature, facing what is easily its most difficult period of its existence. That much can be told in the way it has embraced online education and in the swiftness of the approval of its education programs. This is not a group to revel in the past.
The career college sector has never been embarrassed by what it is. That has been what's driven its success. I sat in breakout sessions; I listened to speakers; I stood at a booth in the convention center and visited with the executives who own, operate, and manage career colleges. They talk about their students and finding ways for them to succeed. To them, regulations are nothing to be skirted – but they are perceived as roadblocks that prevent them from focusing solely on students. I found nothing about them or their work to be ashamed of.
Even when you’re a sleep-deprived, half-dazed tourist in Las Vegas, a place that is intentionally tacky and larger than life, it’s a wonder how what is genuine stands out.