By Dr. James Hutton
We hear about it over and over again. People at 21, 25, 30 and older stuck in dead-end jobs: Delivering pizza. Working at the car wash. Ringing up purchases at the mall. People moving sideways as time and opportunity slip away.
We also hear about people seeking upward mobility who are now ready to do what it takes to make advancement possible. Often, they decide to enroll in private sector colleges and universities, which are sometimes called "career colleges."
These are individuals who were not on the college track in high school. Perhaps they were not lucky enough to be born in the right zip code. Perhaps they did not receive strong parental support and a homegrown emphasis on study and education. Or perhaps they simply did not view themselves as ready for college at age 18, either because they were intimidated by a “big school” environment or because they lacked the direction needed to pursue a particular course of study.
So they drift. Some enter community college — all too often a public school version of 13th grade — and drop out after a semester or two. Again, we hear the same stories over and over again. People treated like “numbers.” Classes not offered or offered only at unworkable times. Popular programs inaccessible or available only after years on a wait list to enroll. For these people, college has merely reinforced the negative experience they received in high school: impersonal, irrelevant, hidebound, dull.
Perhaps society should have better systems for reaching and reinvigorating these individuals, although dramatic new education or workforce programs seem unlikely in the current budget environment. The fact that government cannot provide all of the answers does not make the cycle of dead-end jobs any less distressing for those caught in it. Nor does it lessen individuals’ desires to break the cycle and build real careers. Those who are willing to take on student loan debt to build a better future should be widely supported, not questioned and second-guessed.
Almost four million Americans, often working adults and “non-traditional” students, have turned to private sector colleges and universities (PSCUs) for education opportunities. The story is particularly compelling for minority students, who are underserved by traditional higher education. African-Americans and Hispanics represent 29 percent of the U.S. population but just 21 percent of enrollment at four-year public institutions and 19 percent of enrollment at four-year not-for-profit institutions. In the last 10 years, however, the number of minority students at private sector colleges and universities has grown by over 300 percent. African-American and Hispanic students now represent 31 percent of four-year PSCU enrollment.
Why the movement of minority students to PSCUs? Our critics would argue that PSCUs operate on a for-profit basis and, therefore, target a vulnerable student population for easy access to their federal loan and grant money. Any abuse is one abuse too many, whether in our sector or in any sector of higher education. Where critics see only targeting, I see tailoring. PSCUs have customized an approach to higher education that takes into account the academic, emotional and personal challenges of a non-traditional student population. Elements of this approach include small class sizes; personalized attention; hands-on learning; specific, career-focused programs rather than difficult-to-schedule classes and generally defined majors; and flexible scheduling, including online course delivery.
While some would like to compare the entry of minority students into higher education to the circumstances of the subprime housing market collapse, the analogy is absurd. Speculation in housing prices was the rocket fuel of the subprime market. Studies show that education elevates careers, but no one pursues a college degree as a get-rich-quick strategy. There is little reason for schools that are facing rigorous oversight by and strong sanctions from federal and state governments and accrediting agencies to put their futures at risk by accepting students who are unable to perform.
The truth is that PSCUs aren’t perfect institutions. None are. But detractors seize on problems at individual schools and with individual students and paint the entire sector with a broad brush. This is unfair and unwise. It is unfair because it diminishes the accomplishments of students, who have freely elected to attend our schools, performed under time constraints and other circumstances that would buckle the knees of traditional college students, and graduated with skills and knowledge that make them ready and able to enter the workforce. It is unwise because private sector colleges and universities are the alternative postsecondary avenue to a higher education system simply unable or unwilling to meet market demand.
There’s lots of talk these days about economic growth. Expansion comes from innovation and productivity. I like pizza as much as the next guy, but we will never move forward as a country by leaving millions of Americans parked in dead-end jobs.