Friday, March 19, 2010
You've seen the commercials on the subway, or on the bus if you aren't fortunate to live in a city with a subway system. Or you've seen them on TV early in the morning or around noon—the unemployed hours, when the ads are sandwiched between informercials for new kinds of paper towel dispensers and exposes on the lifestyles of the fat, semi-literate and slutty.
The commercials are for different companies and schools—Phoenix, ITT, DeVry—but the ads are all basically the same. There's the Ordinary American (sometimes appealingly multi-racial, sometimes a recent immigrant, always low-income) describing how he became the successful middle-class person you see before you wearing a tucked-in button-up shirt. This explanation is intercut with images of them repairing computers, organizing files at a doctor's office, or simply staring at a computer screen in a well-lit office like the well-paid professional he is. How did he become such a tower of mundane achievement in the IT or Dental Hygienist fields? Why, by acquiring a degree from [name of college] in [name of field of study] of course!
What these trade schools promise is a practical education that will let you get a job immediately after graduation. The programs may be expensive—thirty thousand dollars for a one-year program sometimes—but you make so much money as a chef or a car mechanic afterwards that you can pay off your debts in a year or two and anyway, you'll get financial aid, so you don't need to worry about it.
That story that recruiters tell students is basically a big fucking lie, as the New York Times reported last weekend, in an article that reminded me why newspapers are more useful than your typical piece of kindling. These schools are for-profit institutions that push their product like Pepsi or Altria, and they make most of their money off of the federal government, which provides grants for education whether or not that education is worthwhile or not.
Now, you can have a long, complicated argument about how useful a four-year degree from a major university is, and a compelling case can be made that the degree itself isn't nearly as useful as the connections and the experience navigating withing systems that you get on your way to a degree. Certainly my degree—a BFA, for the record—isn't worth the price of the paper it's printed on, and neither are general “Liberal Arts” degrees or a wide variety of undergraduate degrees that are issued by institutions more expensive than DeVry or Phoenix. These degrees are luxury items that may provide some measure of knowledge or (in a perfect world) happiness, but they won't help you get a job.
But no one gets a Liberal Arts degree or a BFA with the expectation that it will get them a job. Liberal Arts majors aren't being targeted by TV ads and recruiters and told that they can turn their material fortunes around by spending a lot of money at Dartmouth or UC Berkeley. And most of those big-name universities don't exist solely for undergraduates; they conduct research, they fund graduate programs—if you want to get pretentious about it, they are depositories of the accumulated knowledge of humankind.
These trade schools are not depositories of the accumulated knowledge of humankind. They are a product of a tricky business model that figured out a way to get money from the government and their students at the same time, and as long as they don't explicitly promise good jobs after graduation—which would be illegal, since that would be lying outright—they can go on operating the same way they always have.
What's so objectionable about DeVry and ITT is not their clever business model, but their incredible cynicism. They basically sell themselves as the means to the American Dream—the bootstraps that hard-working immigrants can use to pull themselves up—when they are really expensive versions of community college. Unlike ivy-covered universities, they don't pretend to have a higher purpose than improving the income bracket of their graduates, but they don't even deliver on that promise. Trade schools are a lie that hides behind a veil of pretend pragmatism, which seems worse than those lies that hide behind veils of high-minded ideals—when we pay huge amounts of money to see a Major League Baseball game, at least we can tell ourselves various things about sportsmanship and tradition. DeVry and ITT not only treat us like suckers, they assume we're just as money-hungry as they are.
In Hard Times, Lured Into Trade School and Debt [NYT]