Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Reconnect Part II: Welcome to Scam U.

Adrift on a sea of false promises

Yesterday I bumped into a young man named Gary who used to be in the GED program I was affiliated with. I got to know Gary through the jiu jitsu classes I was teaching to a few of his friends. Like many disconnected young people, Gary left high school because he was dissatisfied with the environment, had some disagreements with his teachers and generally felt like his time could be better spent elsewhere.  When he came to the GED program he had already been out of school for awhile at age 19, but he pledged he'd be there every day because he was determined to get it done.

Within a couple weeks he'd vanished, both from the GED program and my jiu jitsu classes. It wasn't really clear to me then what had happened to him, but friends of his that I knew basically said he was being lazy. I spoke with him briefly after awhile and he indicated he had some family issues to take care of, but would be back soon. I never saw him again.

Until yesterday, that is. We ran into each other completely by chance. I was teaching a jiu jitsu lesson down in the South Bronx and he saw us rolling around on the mats through a window. I surmise that the light bulb of recognition that usually goes off in anyone's head who has done jiu jitsu (since we are an insular, almost cultish breed) went off in his. I saw him banging on the window and invited him in. We exchanged a few pleasantries and then I winced as I got ready to ask him the question I was dreading:

"Did you get your GED?"

Of course the answer was no, despite the year and a half that had passed since I'd last seen him. I began chiding him, gently at first, when he told me the reason he'd quit the GED program (his tutor had to leave early one day when he'd stayed late for extra help and he felt like they didn't care about him). He told me he was looking into finishing though and then dropped the bomb that he was going to enroll in TCI. That's when I started throwing punches.

Technical Career Institutes College of Technology (TCI), for those of you who don't know, is what's commonly known as a Proprietary College. It's less commonly known as a bootleg school that gives you less of an education than a community college at double to quintuple the price. Analogues here in New York City include Global Business Institute, Monroe College, Katharine Gibbs, Berkeley College, The Art Institute, Globe Institute of Technology and the New York Career Institute, among others.

If you clicked on any of the above links, notice the quality rating and its relationship to the tuition rating.

A semester at any of the schools in the City University of New York (CUNY) system will cost you about $5,430 a year, all of which will likely be covered by the federal Pell grant if you meet income requirements or the state Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) grant. A year at TCI or Monroe costs around $11,000. At Berkeley (and no, we're not talking about the famous one in California), about $20,000. At the Art Institute, $25,500. This tab is usually picked up by some creative work in the financial aid office.

Aside from the price, one of the biggest complaints about these institutions is that their accreditation is suspect at best. What this means in plain english is that your credits are unlikely to transfer if you decide to go to a real school and in some cases the programs they offer do not lead to a legitimate Associate's or Bachelor's degree, but a certificate that isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

The allure of many of these programs is that they have killer marketing programs that you can't help but notice if you take public transportation. If you've never bothered to do research, it's easy to be seduced by the promises of "flexible scheduling," a can-do spirit, a pipeline directly into a career and the ability to concurrently work on pursuing a college degree and completing your GED. These ads are targeted at single mothers, young minorities and working class adults more or less at the bottom of the career totem pole (charitably labeled "non-traditional students") and are widely considered by education professionals to be predatory on par with the verbiage of Countrywide Mortgage and check cashing places.

Government has finally twigged onto this problem and is attempting to crack down not only on the institutions themselves, but the accrediting agencies who allow them to operate. The Obama Administration took aim at this issue not long ago, proposing a tough set of new rules that would more clearly establish who was on the level and who wasn't, but then backed down when the final regulations were released after some intense lobbying pressure.

The proprietary college is an interesting nut to crack, particularly with the growth of online education and high unemployment forcing many (myself included) to seek education as a means of positioning themselves to better compete in this unforgiving economy. Forewarned is forearmed. I was fortunate to catch up with Gary before he dove down the rabbit hole. For more information on finding a free GED program in New York City check here. For legitimate programs that offer the opportunity to attend college even if you haven't completed high school, check out the State University of New York's community colleges, many of which offer 24 credit High School Equivalency programs.

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