Undercover Student: For-Profits Have a Role, But Not As Traditional Four-Year Schools

When Christopher Beha applied to the University of Phoenix, a behemoth of the for-profit college industry, he lied to the admissions counselor.

He had to — he already had a college degree.

Beha is an associate editor at Harper’s Magazine and was going undercover to explore the for-profit college, hoping to learn more about the industry facing increased scrutiny from legislators and higher-education experts nationwide after investigations revealed a high drop-out rate and low job placement.

He wrote about his experiences as a for-profit student in a must-read essay from the October issue of Harper’s and spoke with Campus Progress recently about the project.

Because Beha was a paying applicant who didn’t need financial assistance, the school accepted him without verifying that he earned a high school diploma, trusting his word. The entire process of applying and being admitted was "very straightforward," he said.

"I didn’t get the most egregious things you hear about," Beha said, referring to reports of for-profit admissions officers hammering applicants with phone calls and other misleading marketing ploys. (One person applying undercover for a GAO investigation reported getting more than 180 calls in one month.) “But I got daily calls until I came in.”

Beha highlights what is perhaps the most telling part of his admissions experience in the Harper’s report:

Near the end of the application process, we arrived at a page labeled "recommendations," with spaces in which to provide contact information. It occurred to me that getting a reference letter would mean enlisting an accomplice in my deception.

"I can just pick anyone?" I asked [the admissions counselor].

"Anyone you think would be interested in getting a college degree."

They were asking for referrals.

Before long, Beha was sitting in his first class—UNIV 101: University of Phoenix New Student Orientation. What Beha says surprised him most about his educational experience was the quality of the professors—or “facilitators,” as they’re called at Phoenix.

“The instructors themselves were quite good,” he said. “I think that actually has to do with other problems in the higher education landscape in general, which is that the kinds of people that used to be full-time faculty at big places are now adjuncts or faculty at two-year places. There’s been a retraction of the labor market for traditional higher education. You get people who are pretty well qualified.”

But the instructor’s weren’t teaching solid content. In the courses he was taking—the traditional schedule of classes for a first-year student with no transfer credits—most of the content is developed by someone other than the professor.

“I expected it to be remedial, but it wasn’t even academic subject matter at all,” Beha said. “It was essentially teaching life skills.”

Students were learning how to set and achieve goals—which Beha writes about in the beginning of his essay—and how to manage time, balance commitments, and set priorities. Further into the first-year sequence, content shifts to personal health and finance.

“My understanding is that if you make it through a couple years you get into work of real substance,” said Beha, who didn’t stay that long, eventually revealing his identity to his teachers and classmates and sharing several of their stories in Harper’s.

After his experience, Beha insists that he’s still no defender of for-profit colleges, but has developed a polished explanation of the role such institutions can play in educating Americans.

Not everyone should have a college degree, Beha argues, and many would be more suited to pursing an alternative. As Beha writes: “something less than—or other than—a college degree.”

“I think [for-profits] have a place; I think their place should be much smaller,” Beha said. “Is training people with those kinds of life skills beneficial? Sure. The problem is doing it within the context of a four-year degree program. … The question is, ‘Do we want to force people into the classroom that have no real interest in academic work?’”

Beha doesn’t think so, and that’s where he sees potential with for-profit schools: They need to shift their focus from mimicking a traditional, four-year education and instead emphasize vocational work and technical certificates.

“They’re doing what we ask them to,” Beha says, meaning that Americans ask for-profits to take a risk by educating many of the nation’s lower-income citizens. “That is precisely what society is asking them to do. We need to ask them to do something else.

“Create other pathways for [these students.] One of the things that I asked a lot of the students was whether they wanted to be in the classroom. They almost universally said they didn’t want to be there. The fact that they were in the classroom suggests their level of dedication and that they’re willing to do some hard work to get ahead. We should harness that.”


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