Sub-Prime Education

An article in the NYT today about Senate hearings on unethical business practices by for-profit colleges shocked me, but confirmed uneasy suspicions I've had for some time.  Scrutiny Takes Toll on For-Profit College Company, by Tamar Lewin, zeros in on Kaplan, a test-preparation company that was bought by the Washington Post, and then moved into the lucrative for-profit higher education business.

Using hidden cameras, investigators from the Government Accountability Office found deception or fraud at 15 for-profit colleges, including two Kaplan campuses.
The undercover videos showed Kaplan recruiters in Florida and California making false or questionable statements to prospective students - suggesting for example, that massage therapists earn $100 an hour, and that student loans need not be paid back...
Four whistle-blower suits against Kaplan under the federal False Claims Act have been made public in the last few years, all making accusations that the company used deceptive practices in its quest for profits, including enrolling unqualified students and paying recruiters for each student enrolled, a practice forbidden by federal law.
In addition, the suits allege, Kaplan kept students on the books after they dropped out, inflated students' grades and manipulated placement data to continue receiving financial aid.  
  An article in USA Today from September 29, For-profit colleges under fire over value, accreditation, by Mary Beth Marklein, gives a broader overview of the for-profit sector's problems.

Advocates of for-profit colleges say their programs, which often operate online or in rented office space, serve a key role in educating students who juggle work and family demands. But the U.S. government has stepped up its scrutiny amid growing concern that for-profits are reeling in billions of dollars in federal aid by using aggressive - some say deceptive - practices to lure students to programs that might not yield a useful education.
A parallel can be drawn with the recent sub-prime mortgage fiasco.  Schools, (and not only for-profit ones, mind you), knowingly enroll "high risk"students for courses of study leading to certifications or degrees that promise more than they can deliver in the way of high-paying jobs. The students borrow their tuition money with federal student aid.  The ones who complete their work may be unable to find any work at all in their field of study, and now owe many thousand of dollars.

Online, "distance education" has made these new diploma mills all the easier to operate.  A school need not even have public premises or its own library now.  Distance education can work very well if it meets high standards.  It can also be awful, and actually teach very little.  I spent my time in FSU's School of Library and Information Studies both in classrooms and online, and I came away feeling that a lot had been lost with the online experience, even at its best.

Where public libraries intersect with this world is in providing test preparation and proctoring exams.  Ten years ago, our test preparation books, which we shelve together, regardless of Dewey number, alphabetically by test, were relatively few:  ACT, ASVAB, CPA,GED, GMAT, GRE, LSAT, NCLEX, Postal, SAT, and TOEFL.

Since then, achievement, admission, and certification examinations have proliferated.  Companies develop tests, sell them to schools as a reliable way to handle admissions and certifications, and then sell test-prep books and courses to students.  In Florida there is the FCAT for students, the FTCE for teachers, the CJ-BAT, used by the Department of Corrections.  Tallahassee Community College uses the TABE.  There is another group of tests and test-prep books for Advanced Placement as freshmen.

Nursing school entrance exams are numerous, TEAS, HESI, NET, HOBET, and some schools require candidates to take several of them.  TEAS, (Test of Essential Academic Skills), one of the "Product Solutions" of ATI, (Assessment Technologies Institute), is particularly loathsome.  ATI won't sell its $42 study manual to libraries or college testing centers, and forbids students from sharing a copy.

The library has seen an appalling hemorrhage of test-prep materials.  Every year libraries purchase, and lose, many copies of test-prep books for the GED, (General Equivalency Diploma), and the ASVAB, (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery).  It's not so bad, as you go up the educational ladder.  Books for post-graduate admissions tests, (GRE, LSAT), don't disappear nearly as much.  Providing online test-prep through Learning Express is more efficient, but the poor often have no Internet access at home.  We are now, reluctantly, buying print test-prep materials for in-library use only.

It's a difficult situation.  If people don't understand the the basic social contract that they agree to when they get a library card, that they must return our books for others to use, then what is the likelihood that they will be able to honor a tuition loan?  It is what I come up against every day, this brokenness of the poor that makes them ideal victims.  I read a review of Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc.How the Working Poor Became Big Business by Gary Rivlin:

Long before subprime lending and its role in the near-collapse of the U.S. financial system, a critical mass of businesses aimed at the working poor had been growing across the nation and exerting power in Washington. Award-winning reporter Rivlin chronicles the boom in the "fringe financial sector" as pawnshops, pay-day lenders, and rent-to-own stores have blossomed, gone public, and gained a measure of respectability, all by targeting their overpriced services to the working poor. Whether they have been exploiting their customers or merely providing them with desperately needed services is a matter of perspective to the gallery of characters Rivlin interviewed... (Booklist)
That debate has now extended to for-profit education as well.

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