For-Profit Education

This blog post explores for-profit education, debt, inequality, and destructive effects on mental health, opportunity, and productivity.

This morning, I drove “Rabe” to our off-leash dog beach. It’s our first-light ritual, as often as I can manage it. That is, getting to the beach at first light. I drive there in the dark. At that hour, NPR runs No Stupid Questions. This morning, they considered: “Do self help books really help?” I learned a few things. Margaret Thatcher loved an 1859 book by Samuel Smiles entitled “Self Help.” She thought it should be given to every schoolchild. Predictably, the book not only contemplated that individual effort leads to social mobility, but also that poverty is the result of poor choices. Smiles was inspired, in part, by the perseverance of Thomas Carlyle, who wrote a book about the French Revolution  – actually, re-wrote it, since his friend accidentally burnt his first manuscript.

How is any of this relevant to anything? Well, quite oddly, it’s perfectly relevant.

First, this post is a re-write of a post I lost when my computer crashed (no temp files, etc., though I spent more time looking for them than it will take to re-write). I became disenchanted with inflexible templates and decided to move this site to a more accommodating editor. I dutifully copied all my content before the deed, but to no avail. The computer fates snipped the interweb, and it was gone.

Second, this post comes after a long period of perseverance. It turns out that easy-to-use templates, while limiting, also let you make a nice looking site in about five hours flat. The other options? Well, the learning curve for this stuff is alot steeper than I remembered. Many hours later, I now possess a bad imitation of a skill that is useless in my profession. But I’m unlimited by those annoying templates!

Third, both of the posts I lost (the first was easy to redo, as it’s a story I’d already written) involve poverty and choices. I have a decidedly different opinion than Smiles or Thatcher, of course.

So the No Stupid Questions bit was a nice introduction to today, since I’d planned to do the rewrite this evening. And here we go:

This post starts a decade or so ago, in my economics class. The professor had just asked a question. I don’t remember it; I only remember my answer:

“Well, that reminds me of your pianist…”

My professor gave me a shocked, confused look, stopped me, and asked me what I’d said.

“It reminds me of your pianist.”

The look on his face didn’t improve. He repeated his confused demand.

This went on for several rounds until I got what was happening.

“Oh, it reminds me of your piano player.”

The class, and the professor, erupted in laughter. Apparently, I pronounce the word “pianist” poorly. When the levity died down, I went on with the answer.

“The Pianist” is a virtuoso who sits by her balcony, windows open, playing the piano. A crowd gathers below, enraptured. But then she stops. She’s played as long as she cares to, and she knows nothing about the crowd below. Her audience is deflated. If only there were a way they could communicate their desire to hear her music!

Enter mammon, lucre, the almighty dollar, what makes the world go ‘round.

The idea is that money might provide an additional incentive beyond pure enjoyment to keep The Pianist at her virtuosic playing a bit longer. Economists have a good point.

I start with that memory to emphasize a point – I don’t have any qualms about profit. This post considers problems with for-profit education, but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad. I accept that profit will expand quality options for students. My post is not to deny that nor to dwell on it.

But let’s start with The Pianist. When lucre enters the picture, the joy of virtuosic playing isn’t her only motive. She might be willing to play pieces that aren’t as good or that she doesn’t approach as skillfully, as long as the audience still pays up. Now a market, not her private standard, is in control of the sophistication and quality she offers.

People assume that the market – competition – drives quality higher. Well, they’re wrong. It doesn’t, at least not necessarily. If the audience wants cheesy tunes, she’ll play them.

It’s like believing that the “marketplace of ideas” will result in the best ideas winning out. Do you really believe that? Look at the world around you. Look at the ideas, shows, news, radio, books, politicians, and other people who are prominent. Billions aren’t served because the burgers are particularly good. People will sell whatever you want to buy, even when it’s not particularly highbrow, smart, or insightful. Even when it’s downright horrible and hateful. The “marketplace of ideas” is some crazy bullshit the Supreme Court invented to sound smart when talking about free speech. The truth is, people will sell you as much as you want to buy, and only when the world gets very seriously fucked up do people realize how terrible the product has been. The “marketplace of ideas” is a joke. The claim that the market brings you quality is a joke.

Our Pianist only has to be as good as other pianists in the town. Which turns out not to be that hard. Our townsfolk – it’s a large town – want a pianist in every bar, every theater. There aren’t enough virtuosos to go around, even if our townsfolk weren’t begging for jaunty rags (there are some damn good ones, but that’s not the point here). Again, the principle that competition drives quality higher is a joke. It depends on what’s scarcer, the skill or the opportunity. It depends on how diverse your market is and who you’re competing against.

Education is the same. Everyone needs it – needs alot of it (yes, wonks, I used the word). And with profit as a motive, educators will sell as much of it as people can be convinced to buy. That can seriously stress the resource – e.g. quality programs and teachers. It’s also an approach completely unconcerned with good allocation (think – are there too many waltzes, too few rags, etc.) So we end up with poor quality and poor allocation in education.

That’s not just a possibility or a guess. We know that trade jobs go unfilled while university enrollment (at least until COVID-19) has been on the rise. We know that for-profit schools, including trade schools, pursue veterans and other groups aggressively and can leave victims with no degree, no certificate, no transferrable classes, and substantial debt. We know that schools focused on serving what I will call “excess demand” have unforgivably high tuition to match their drop out and fail rates. On the last part, I assume that schools that serve only the least competitive applicants are serving excess demand. That does not mean that I believe that test scores and prior academic performance should dictate who is accepted into a good quality program. I believe nothing of the sort. The evidence simply suggests that there are schools that treat those candidates as prey (and among the schools that ought to do something about the situation, prestige is both too dear and too driven by entry statistics, no matter what an admissions counselor may tell you).

This leaves graduates and drop-outs/fail-outs with a serious problem – educational debt that does not match up well against opportunities. The problem is worse for minorities, women, lower-income students, and veterans. Many of them face higher debt and rates and lower pay, which means they pay substantially more for the same education and do not obtain the same opportunities. Our younger generations are taking longer to build homes and families because of the mismatch between education, debt, opportunities, and earnings. People face repayment timelines that extend to retirement and beyond. It’s possible to pay a large fraction of your income for a decade or so and find that you’ve barely cut into the principle. Predictably, we have a mental health epidemic driven by the mismatch. People experience anxiety and stress disorders, depression, suicidal ideation, and other mental health issues.

Normally, a person facing that plight would declare bankruptcy. But, in the late 1970s, some genius decided that knowledge and experience gained by education is special. Therefore, unlike entrepreneurs who learn from their business failures, students cannot discharge education debt in bankruptcy. This discriminates against graduates, drop-outs, and fail-outs, denying them a basic right contemplated in our Constitution – the right to try, fail, and try again. Bankruptcy is a tool to spread the risk of trial and error onto society as a whole through creditor interest rates. Denying its protections to students is an unforgivable blunder, but until recently it’s been great news for investment products.

But now even investors and investment products are backing out of the education debt market. It turns out that facing defaults and students who must live to 108 to repay their debts becomes uninviting, even for a technically unkillable debt. I’m worried what that will mean for interest rates, particularly those that might be calculated based on the creditworthiness of people who are impoverished or generationally disadvantaged.

In this somewhat discursive ramble about my lost post, I want to pause to make a point about trade jobs. A common response to what I’m pointing out is that perhaps people who can’t afford the risks of education should turn to trade jobs, which supposedly pay well (my research says that’s not quite true) and are often unfilled (that’s true).

When I attended my own professional degree program, I was disheartened by the number of cocktail parties that were staffed by minority owned businesses. It wasn’t the fact that minorities owned the businesses, it was that some asshole thought that hiring minority businesses to hand me alcohol and treats was a good way of extending opportunities to everyone. I don’t have the words for how fucked up that was. I would like to have seen some diversity at the podium, teaching my classes. That would have seemed alot more like extending opportunities to everyone.

What does that have to do with trade jobs? Well, we live in a country that has pervasive, generational racial opportunity gaps. Just who do you think is being told to go off to trade school and not make the “irresponsible” decision to penetrate professions that require a different educational path? Every time someone tells me that people should make the responsible choice and go to trade school, I remember how fucked up those cocktail parties were. While it’s true that trade jobs need to be filled and can offer good economic opportunities, that’s not the only consideration. And I am damn sure it’s not the most important consideration.

Besides, as I’ve pointed out, trade schools are one of the offenders when it comes to predatory recruiting and worthless classes and degrees.

I believe that it falls to my generation (and perhaps a few others) to reform our system. What I and others I know went through isn’t something that should happen to others. It’s not paying dues, it’s not a lighthearted hazing ritual. It’s a system that must be changed because it ought to be changed.

Does that mean no for-profit education? I don’t think so. But it does mean coming to terms with the economic and social drag and inequalities created and perpetuated by our current approach. Just think about it. We’ve created a society where individuals who could be important creators are never discovered because there’s no system in place to shepherd a first generation student to success. Where people who have learned from failure are forced to continue on with failure rather than retool and succeed. Where people experience mental conditions that drag them down and away from the value they can deliver to themselves and others.

6.6 million students nationwide (USA) can’t apply for better jobs, because their transcripts or degrees are withheld, because they couldn’t get good enough jobs.

Is that a system that makes sense to you? If it weren’t so obviously stupid, I’d call it cruel.

I haven’t experienced every aspect of the above – for instance, I’m not female, I’m not a minority. I lived my early life as a low-income student – qualified for lunches and such – but it wasn’t terrible. My condition is better now, but I still don’t have access to important tools for advancement. My family that counts is manual labor class and has zero knowledge, wisdom, or connections that can help me in any way in my chosen field, and that has really sucked. These issues aren’t theoretical to me, they’re personal. I have the insight that comes from unwanted, spirit-crushing experience. I know alot of men in my demographic go the opposite direction, but fuck it, as Mark Hamill said in his comic shop interview, I’m a mouseketeer (besides, the other choices just don’t appeal to me). I know people who have it worse. I choose to use my experiences to inform Esther Jones and my other stories that address the control and exploitation of access to knowledge, credentials, and opportunity.

I also believe that the cybernetics and artificial intelligence issues I address in Esther Jones are real and serious concerns about our future. We already see the encroachment of AI into intellectual work, and it is apparent that humanity is already engaged in extended cognition. Ultimately, a world that does not serve human needs is inhumane. We need to exercise caution about how we resolve these issues. And at the moment, I’ve circled back around to add that another excerpt I’m about to add – from the Adventures of Satoshi Bitman – also considers some risks of extended cognition. Again, I’m sure it’s inspired by the direction our discourse has taken, but I also think it’s a serious, independent possibility.

Thus ends this, my admittedly discursive and imperfect recollection of my post on for-profit education in the United States. If you’re interested in sources, they’re all around you. Talk to them.

My original post had citations, and I may circle back around later and add them when I have time to delve into my browser history. Until then, the predominant sources were NPR (and sources they carry), Brookings, Forbes, Investopedia, Wall Street Journal, Huffington, the US National Library of Medicine National Center for Biotechnology Information, Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future, and a few others.

Eben Bosc Copyright 2021 all rights reserved

Before using information, I check that it is by a reputable author and/or aligns with journalistic sources that are peer reviewed or have a reasonably high factual accuracy rating from a site like Allsides. I prefer sources that are fairly neutral or factual reporting that holds similar in both left and right leaning sources.

For-Profit Education