Opinion

Ivory Tower, or Tower of Babel? A Look Back at a Bad Actor in For-Profit Education

It has been about four years since Corinthian Colleges made the news after a Department of Education (DoE)  investigation found the company guilty of deliberately falsifying information and abusive recruiting practices. The action by the DoE effectively closed the school, and this was only the opening volley in the education wars. The Obama administration implemented rules to punish the bad actors, but like their procedures with sexual assault this had many negative and unintended consequences, such as targeting good schools along with the bad and placing unfair burdens on them and their students. Education Secretary Betsy Devos has rolled back many of these rules and adopted more measured policies. For example, she protects taxpayer money by more stringent student loan forgiveness policies for those cheated by bad actors and ties student loan forgiveness to income.

The role of for-profit educators is still hotly contested and will continue to be so. Proponents argue that these institutions cater to underserved populations and nontraditional students. Opponents argue these people are predatory actors that want to enroll as many students as possible, regardless of their ability to complete a degree, because they want as much student loan, grant, and VA benefit money as possible.

As somebody who has worked at many of these colleges, including one horrible semester as an employee of Corinthian Colleges, I am a unique witness to these events; based upon their incompetent but highly bureaucratic system, their unrealistic classroom standards, and bottom-of-the-barrel recruiting efforts, I’m not surprised by the government’s actions, and even support them.

My application first caught their attention after I had to make a new account. I applied years ago as a freshly-minted Master of History, but personal items and the burden of a PhD program prevented me from returning to it until years later. My old account had locked me out, and no matter how many times I reset my login credentials they would not let me enter.

That should have been my first clue that something was greatly amiss, but I enjoy teaching despite the bureaucratic nonsense, and could still use the money that comes from teaching another class. Upon my hiring I received emails to both addresses of my account, informing me that I had been selected for provisional employment contingent upon training. But these emails were not always sent by the same personnel to the same address, so I was not entirely sure what my training was and when it would begin.

Finally, after a week of confusion I received a lengthy email clearly informing me of my training requiring almost 50 pages worth of paperwork. I remember thinking sardonically how the W-2 must have gotten much longer. I received this email on a Wednesday, for training that would start on Monday. This is a good deal of paperwork, but it is manageable over a period of time, except I had to complete this paperwork and they had to enter it before they would allow me to start training. I did the math and realized I had to finish the paperwork immediately, and pay extra to send it overnight, to have it arrive by Friday in order to allow my entrance into training on Monday.

I called out of my day job, printed out the documents, and filled them out. Only closing on my house required more time, effort, and money than the paperwork from this school. Six hours and 60 dollars later, I had notarized what they requested, rush-ordered a transcript, and overnight-mailed the rather thick packet of paperwork. After I finished that massive pile of paperwork, at great cost and inconvenience to myself, they informed me that training was delayed a week. During that week, they claimed on two different occasions (maybe they just wanted to message both accounts I had to make) that my paperwork had been lost and I would have to do it again. I held out and they eventually found my paperwork.

At long last I started my training. I’ve taught dozens of online classes over the course of half a decade, so I didn’t need training to begin with, but I understand how schools want a level of uniformity and awareness from their faculty. Even so, this was rather pathetic training. It consisted of three short units with a minimal amount of reading and work about some basic CCI policies. I hadn’t even received my certificate before I was offered two classes. I barely found out about it, because lost in all the paperwork was a notification of my new school email address, which is how they informed me of the new classes.

Based upon my years of experience I managed to prep the courses in less than day, literally the day before the course began. While it was far from perfect, I’m confident it was a decent way to start the course and met the students’ needs for an organized classroom. Yet in that first week, I had four different emails from two different supervisors about several announcements I had failed to post. I couldn’t help but recall all of the “vital” paperwork and mandatory training that turned out to be useless. But I understood that a new professor is always a bit out of variance with his or her new school, so I went with the program and made the necessary adjustments. This happened, of course, at the same time that I was receiving various additional administrative items that I had to complete. I found this somewhat difficult to do since the links I was sent did not work, and tech support was always busy and never helpful. I finally quit trying, and haven’t heard anything since, so I assume the fate of the world depended on it.

Their HR department and administrative culture was a nightmare, but I still enjoy teaching so I mostly shrugged it off and jumped into the course. Yet the nightmare really began when I looked at the first discussion board and graded the first written assignment. I had entered that special Hell that results from vastly underprepared students combined with overbearing and micromanaging supervisors. In a quest for more government-funded tuition, many schools increasingly turn to underprepared individuals. Even then, helping an underserved segment of the population is a worthy goal, and it is possible for those students to make progress towards their degrees and better their lives. But many supervisors unrealistically expect sophisticated discussions of complicated topics at the same time I’m clarifying the nature of a paragraph or how to write a complete sentence to these underprepared students.  Those micromanaging supervisors complaining about pointless minutia simply took away from the time-consuming task of trying to turn underprepared students into semi recognizable college students.

And so began what I called my bi-weekly “you suck” emails. Even as I participated daily in the discussion board, graded barely coherent work, offered suggestions and improvements, provided effusive encouragement to students that seemed beset by the whirlwind of life, created interactive audio-video lectures, and basically spent a great deal of time “in the trenches” helping my students, I regularly received emails about such important items as my failure to include the student’s name in my feedback. My supervisors complained that I only “technically” fulfilled the discussion requirements. One breathless message sent with high importance chastised me because I zeroed out the gradebook on Saturday instead of Wednesday. When I tried to apply their corrections, I received further abuse because I had failed to acknowledge their last email after making those corrections. Every “helpful” email included a reminder that failure to comply might result in my termination.

On top of this, I still received emails from HR. They needed me to send another transcript and notarized form.  Again, they sent me this only a few days before I would be removed from the class. It was their policy to require transcripts within a certain amount of time, and they lost the documents in the first place. Again, I had to call out of work with my other job to request another rushed transcript. All of this excessive paperwork and harassment might have been bearable, except in all of these emails and supervision nobody had told me about the paperwork needed to get paid. I finally figured out that CCI had a “secure vpn” site where I had to fill out a time-sheet. I had never needed one in all my time teaching. Nobody told me I should fill it out, or how to do so. HR failed to return my emails asking for clarification, so I wasn’t entirely sure I would receive a pay check for the first month of my employment. So at the same time I wasn’t sure if I was getting paid, I still received harassing emails from the HR department. One time, for example, I was locked out of my email account for no reason. They only informed me of this in my locked-out account. As I contacted technical support staff that didn’t help, they reminded me to be “patient” and “professional.” This is from the HR staff that impatiently tried to fire me after losing documents, and was being shut down by the Department of Education.

But some confusion over paychecks turned out to be normal for this school. About two-thirds of the way through my semester I started receiving frantic emails from the CCI president. He discussed his attempts to “prevent a sudden and unplanned wind down” of CCI operations. I’ve received links to petitions. The president of CCI discussed a compromise “in theory” with the Department of Education that allowed CCI to meet payroll. But the best was probably his admonition one Saturday that we should come to work as though we still have job. It was a laugh-out- loud moment that recalled a plea from Dean Pelton of the fictional Greendale Community College, the ridiculous request for TPS reports from the movie Office Space, and Despicable Me’s horrible pep talk to his minions all rolled into one. It had the credibility of Baghdad Bob’s pronouncements about the strength of the Iraq army.

Hence, after one semester on the staff, I am witnessing the implosion of CCI. I don’t feel that badly. Like Professor X in the basement of the Ivory Tower, this is a second job that brings in extra money. I love teaching, and since this began my weekly “you suck” emails have decreased. I suppose my supervisors have abandoned their posts, so I’m incredibly relieved I’m allowed to work in peace. Like the Towel of Babel from the Old Testament, my time at CCI has been a mess of confusion and frustration fueled by its toxic culture. And like the Jehovah of the Old Testament, I share a sense of justice in seeing it fall.

Outside of my personal feelings there are still many matters at play. There are horrible bad actors like Corinthian Colleges that need to be reined in through government action. But conservatives know that government regulations often produce negative and unintended side effects that can hurt the good actors in the field. It remains incredibly important for the people to assess the college they plan to attend, and if the debt they assume is really worth it. I walked away from the school much wiser and with personal experience every time a story about for-profit colleges enters the news. I hope you walk away from this article with the same feeling. Lets punish the bad actors, but do more to increase the rigor of college classes and the benefit it offers to non-traditional students.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Morgan Deane

Morgan Deane is a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst. He is the author of the forthcoming book Decisive Battles in Chinese history, as well as Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon.

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