BEYOND THE PAPER SCREEN / Broken promise of college education hurts society as a whole

By Sawa Kurotani /Special to The Japan NewsI was sitting absentmindedly at my kitchen table with my first cup of coffee, barely aware of the local morning news that was running in the background. Then, an angry woman’s voice jolted me into alertness.

“I’m two courses short of graduating. That’s all I need to get that piece of paper!” she screamed. I looked up to see on the TV screen a group of students huddled together in a hallway in front of a dean’s office. Though I couldn’t hear what the dean was saying, his facial expression said it all: He had no answer to their desperate pleas.

On March 7, the Art Institute of Hollywood abruptly announced that it would be closing permanently. They waited to inform the students until the last possible moment — a mere two days before closure — by mass email, and shocked students gathered on campus to demand answers. According to the news coverage, this campus was part of a for-profit university, owned by a church-affiliated charitable organization. There were definite warning signs in the past year, including reports of financial irregularities and multiple campus closures around the country. It is unclear whether the students, who are in the middle of their term, will be able to complete their current courses or get any tuition refund.

In the face of this terrible news, my first reaction was a sort of resignation, the feeling of “oh, that again.” For-profit colleges and universities have gone through the cycle of boom and bust, from their exponential growth through the 1990s and peak years in the 2000s, to the abrupt fall in the first half of the 2010s. As a member of a different sector of higher education — small private not-for-profit colleges and universities — I watched their rise and fall with amazement and disdain. Higher education was becoming another business, I thought, where enrollment management, increased revenue streams and cost containment strategies were the priority. Many for-profit, as well as not-for-profit, institutions have failed in the last two decades, and more will surely go away in the future. The closure of another for-profit institution was, on one level, part of this bigger trend.

At the same time, I was outraged by this display of institutional irresponsibility and the devastating effects on young people affected by it. I was haunted especially by the female student on TV, full of strong emotions — frustration and anger, distrust and fear — quite understandable under the current predicament. She will have to scramble and figure out how to complete her degree elsewhere, which is easier said than done.

She might find out that not all her credits are transferable and that it’ll take her much longer to complete her degree; she might have to commute, or even move, to another city to find courses she needs. If she is among many students in for-profit universities with limited financial means or substantial family obligations, the added burden may make it entirely impossible to continue on. One way or another, she and her peers will have to count their losses and move on without much help.

The local campus closure was only a part of a much larger financial failure, involving three university systems and a dozen locations, and it is not likely their insolvent institution or its holding company will do anything meaningful to salvage their students’ endangered academic careers.

Even though my visceral reaction has subsided, I remain uneasy about what this instance says about the future of higher education and our society. Time and time again, young people are told that college education is the single most critical factor under their own control that leads to a secure financial future. Numerous analyses confirm that college graduates in the United States enjoy more secure employment, make more money over the course of their lives, and generally have a better chance at a good life than those who don’t have a college degree.

Enticed by this “promise” of a college degree, published in popular venues and used liberally in college recruitment pitches, more and more high school students and their families, as well as working adults, are investing a considerable amount of time, money and effort to go to college.

However, when their educational plans are jeopardized due to institutional failure, students realize there is no guarantee of support to get them back on track. This possibility, which didn’t even occur to me when I was an undergraduate student, has become an increasingly realistic scenario in the last two decades. Some might argue that businesses (even non-profit ones) that lose competitiveness should be eliminated, and that, as consumers, we should know that every investment — which college education is increasingly perceived as — comes with a risk. If we follow this capitalist logic, both the insolvent institution and its students are equally at fault.

If college education is indeed an essential step toward a secure and productive life as asserted, then it benefits not only those individuals who pursue college degrees, but also society as a whole. Then we must ask ourselves: Do we want to leave such crucial service to the vagaries of the markets and risk creating a whole bunch of poorly educated citizens with little hope of a better life? This is a concern not only in the United States, but in any country, including Japan, where public investment in education has been shrinking. I’m no venture capitalist, but it seems like a really bad investment decision for our entire society.

■ Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.Speech

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