The Occupy movement is planning a March 1 national action  around educational inequality, and if protestors are looking for inspirational reading, they should head over to Harper’s and devour Christopher Beha’s gonzo account  of enrolling at the Jersey City campus of the University of Phoenix.
The for-profit college serves half a million students online and at 200 real-world campuses across the country. It earned $4.5 billion last year, the majority of it from federal student loans. Supporters of Phoenix’s business model argue that if the United States is to live up to President Obama’s ambitious goal of every American completing at least one year of post-high school education or training by 2020, massive, private companies like Phoenix will have to be involved. But as Beha demonstrates in his devastating piece, the “education” Phoenix provides does little to improve the life outcomes or professional options of its students, about three-fifths of whom drop out within a year of enrolling, saddled with student debt and with no degree to show for it. Introductory Phoenix courses, with names like “Foundations of University Studies,” are stultifyingly content-free—except for the fact that they seek to further inoculate students with the ideology of “college for all.”
I am going to quote Beha’s piece at length, because this section is stunningly on-point:
Four straight hours in any classroom will get tedious, but four hours in a classroom engaged in the recursive process of discussing motivation, goal-setting, and the other skills needed to survive four hours in the classroom is particularly numbing. The students in GEN 195 could have been forgiven for coming to believe about college what they had likely already felt about high school, which is that it was a thing to be endured, not incidentally but essentially, that endurance was the quality being tested and cultivated. And to some extent, they would be right. Even more than critical thinking or time management, what the white-collar economy requires from most workers is the ability to spend the bulk of their waking hours completing tasks of no inherent importance or interest to them, to show up every day, and to not complain overmuch about it. Most of my classmates were working full-time, tending to families at home, doing their coursework where they could, and once a week going to class from six to ten at night. Entirely absent from those classes was any sense that learning could be exciting, or even valuable for its own sake, and absent this sense only the strongest-willed could stick with such a schedule for four years.
The strain became clear in our third week, when we went over the midterm exam. The test was multiple choice, open-book, untimed, and fair. Dr. Price had gone to great lengths to emphasize this last point. “I get student evaluations after each class, and the one thing everyone says is that the tests may be tough, but they’re fair.” She went so far as to print out these student evaluations and pass them around the room while we reviewed. It was an oddly defensive gesture, especially since she’d had nothing to do with the design of the exam, which would be taken that year by tens of thousands of GEN 195 students taught by thousands of facilitators in forty states.
The test was made available on the course’s website after the end of our second class and was due before the beginning of our third. Beforehand, we were given a study guide that listed the exact pages in the reading from which the questions would be taken. Typical questions included: “College is important today because: a) New technologies are changing the workplace; b) It provides earning power; c) It prepares citizens for leadership roles; d) All of the above.” As soon as we submitted the exam it was graded and the score was posted back to us.
The results were demoralizing.
Indeed, most of Beha’s classmates lacked the basic reading comprehension skills to pass the exam. What these adults need is less an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, and more a crash course in basic literacy. Alternatively, they could learn a skilled trade. As I noted in my 2011 Nation feature on the future of vocational education , about two-thirds of the jobs that will be created in the American economy between now and 2018 will require some education beyond high school, such as an occupational certificate, but will not require a college degree. Many of these “mid-skill” jobs provide a good, middle-class income: think aircract mechanics, dental hygenists, and electricians. Yet most Phoenix programs provide no hands-on technical training.
The for-profit education industry has a powerful lobbying arm in Washington and in statehouses around the country. Unlike public community colleges and state universities, for-profits spend a significant portion of their revenues marketing themselves to young people in subway cars, on billboards, and with catchy TV advertisements like this one:
The Obama administration has taken some preliminary steps to rein-in this sector, but has caved  on certain crucial reforms; for-profits should be required to keep public records of their graduation rates, loan default rates, their students’ employment outcomes, and other measures of success. But the federal and state governments should also rein-in tuition increases at public colleges and do a better job of educating high school students about why those schools are often a smarter bet. Raising the quality of the K-12 education system would also help solve the problem, by ensuring that fewer students graduate high school without the skills they need to complete more rigorous college-level coursework.