My Exploitation of the American Student
I wasn’t looking forward to the admissions meeting that afternoon. Our director loved to pass out spreadsheets of everybody’s numbers for the week and spend time picking them apart. I would shrink behind my desk as she scanned the room with her eyes looking for somebody to chastise. My numbers were down, and that was a problem.
When you work in admissions at a For Profit University we refer to students as numbers.
Why? Well, I guess if you give students a human identity, it makes it harder to take advantage of them. If you turn people, into numbers, their futures are easier to add and subtract.
I spent a year meeting with hundreds of students who thought “higher education” was their ticket to freedom. I remember one of my students very vividly. His name was James, and he was a recovering meth addict. His eyes were kind - almost remorseful - and his smile would light up the room as he read our college brochures. “I’m forty years old,” he said as I interviewed him. “This is my last opportunity to do something with my life.” This particular opportunity, an associate degree in computer science, would run James close to thirty thousand dollars.
James had been laid off from his job, was about to lose his apartment, and was considering going to “college” for the first time. Despite his optimism, I knew that James needed to get his personal life in order before he started classes. Without some structure in his life, he could easily fall through the cracks and be stuck with thousands of dollars of debt. If he could get a roof over his head and rally some support from his family, he could eventually start school. I believed in him, but I also knew it was not the right time for him to go after his degree.
That said, enrollment was low that semester and our admissions director needed to hit her goal immediately, even if that meant James putting himself in a precarious position. Enrolling James at a later date was not an acceptable policy at this school. The encouraged policy was to urge someone like James to enroll “NOW!” no matter the costs.
Ultimately, I decided not to enroll him. Even with the corporate eyes watching and my own job at stake, I provided James the resources he needed so that when he was ready, he could make a clear informed choice about his future.
I was in the wrong profession and I knew it. I needed to find a way out.
I’m an actor, writer, and storyteller.
So, how did I end up working as an admissions advisor at a For Profit school?
To put it simply, I had to put my emerging acting career on hold because of the burden of my own student loan debt. I tried to find administrative positions in the theater community to help support my work as a performer, but the only employment response I received was for a position at a For Profit Institution as an admission adviser. I was desperate and took the job.
The training itself should have given me a clue as to how business was done at my workplace. I was given motivational speeches on how to get students to trust me. Our company brought in Dale Carnegie specialists to turn us into “super-salesmen.” My interview sessions with students were personally monitored and scrutinized for the sole purpose of increasing mass enrollment. Ethics were not mentioned
It’s embarrassing to admit that I had been working in admissions for a year, shackling students with unfathomable debt, in order to pay off mine. Those are the facts; no excuses. However, as I started to see the larger picture of what was happening in our higher education system, I started to question everything about what I did for a living.
What was I willing to do for my own security? What was I willing to do for money? I went back and forth, reasoning with myself. I wasn’t directly harming any students, I was helping them achieve the American Dream by getting a college education, right?
No matter how I tried to justify it, there was no excuse. I desired security, but not on the backs of the very people that I was supposed to serve.
You see, as an admissions adviser, I didn’t serve as a guide for students making one of the most important decisions in their life. That assumption was naive. My real job was to serve as a screener for the best possible candidates for financial aid. Making a profit was the only priority of this institution; education was just a consolation prize. Advising students isn’t important when you’re trained to only enroll them and punished when you don’t.
I couldn’t see how convincing a sixty three year old military veteran, for example, to take out forty-thousand dollars in loans was helping anybody. Yet, this was expected of all of my colleagues. It reminded me of a line from the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross,
“ABC, Always be closing”.
The school monitored our phone conversations for “quality assurance.” The calls were recorded so that my director could find out if you followed the script and convinced the caller to come to the school for an interview. We were expected to make harassing phone calls to potential “leads” (another key word for students) at least once every day for the rest of the foreseeable future. I was put on probation because I wouldn’t force students who wanted more information or weren’t really interested in the school to attend an enrollment meeting.
I caught a glance of a world where all education is for sale. Knowledge and innovation took a back seat to debt and conformity. I didn’t like living in this world. Moreover, I didn’t enjoy being the gatekeeper for the next generation of young professionals entering into modern indentured servitude. Millions of students across the country will be paying off their loans for the rest of their lives, and for what? For the chance of getting a job that will hardly pay them off?
This was a wake up call, and a defining moment in my young career as an artist. I could say something about this, I realized. I could use my skills as a performer to tell this story and spark a social conversation about the nature of for profit institutions and their connection to the student debt crisis.
At last, there came that spring afternoon in our admissions meeting, where I sat waiting to see how low my enrollment was for the semester. Let’s just say my numbers weren’t well received, but that was fine by me. When you’re not enrolling every hapless organism, your enrollment does tend to be lower.
Instead of cowering in fear when my director asked my why my enrollment was so low, I smiled knowing I had started to make amends for my participation in the exploitation of the American student.
At the end of that day I received a call from the president’s office down the hallway. It was Friday and I knew what was coming. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help smiling during the entire car ride home.
Aaron Calafato is an actor, writer, and storyteller. He is also a resident teaching artist at the Darene Hope Studios in Cleveland, Ohio. Aaron is currently performing his latest solo piece "For Profit", which previews in Cleveland, OH at Darene Hope Studios and will make its NYC premiere at The Seeing Place Theater.
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