Implications of “Teach-Outs,” and The “Right-Sizing” of For-Profit Institution Closures for Contingent Faculty

As a way to shine a light on low-road practices in for-profit higher education, we issued a Call For Papers: Confronting the For-Profit College Culture. The positive response to the CFP shows that faculty want to be heard, and the forthcoming series of stories will highlight the unique set of circumstances that faculty face. It bears repeating that faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. Are you a for-profit faculty member? Join us here and submit your story. 

by K. Jacobsen

I work(ed) for a for-profit college. No, not that one. Or that other one. And my college is closing. Nope, not that one, either. But my story is similar, and very reminiscent of the stories you’ve read here and elsewhere. Such stories are legion, and many for-profits are closing their doors. The term to use when Googling is “teach out”: this indicates that the for-profit school is folding up shop, closing its doors, and likely cutting its losses in terms of degree-seeking students and adjunct employees.

An aside: I just want to say, “it’s all true.” Everything you have suspected? Or speculated? Yes. It’s true, the college’s obligation toward “gainful employment,” predatory recruitment practices, accreditation gaffes… But I digress….

The focus of for-profit institutions on this “downsizing” or “rightsizing” (as it is seen in a corporate sense) has also been publicly focused on students, touting that these institutions will do everything within their power to ensure that students not only graduate and receive a quality education, but also that students stand a chance at finding “gainful employment.” So, in other words, “there’s nothing to see here, folks! Things are fine.” And students will continue to receive the attention and training that they need to succeed in their chosen field.

But this does not start to unfold the problem. Students are, obviously, the fundamental reason a college or university exists. But what about those who are employed to teach at these institutions? What about the actual workers who enable their classes to run, their students to become educated, and their profits to be profitable? What about the majority of worker-educators who populate the faculty of these institutions?

I started working at a small branch of a nationwide art college in the early 2000s. I began right before a massive national expansion of the school’s locations. And when I started, I believed in their mission. I believed in offering opportunity to everyone, that anyone who wanted a college education should be able to pursue their goals—to better one’s self, to learn valuable skills, and to engage in meaningful self-discovery. I still believe this.

I genuinely thought that I, as a member of the educating class, was building a meaningful bridge between the world of academia and the pragmatic working world around us. A place of self-actualization. A place of intellectual, psychological and emotional advancement toward the betterment of the individual and civilization.

Pretty heavy handed, huh?

What I have found, after over a decade of service to higher education, is that in actuality these institutions are not offering opportunity. It’s not about opportunity…for the students. It’s about opportunism…for the institutions. And as an employee who is very low on the totem pole, I have suffered a bait and switch just as toxic as the grift played on students.

My experiences in the art school circuit include both Education Management Corporation (EDMC) and Career Education Corporation (CEC) schools. (See here for background.) Every single for-profit school I have ever worked for is presently in “teach-out” mode. All of them have operated in the same manner.

Allow me, if you will, to pull back the curtain, again, on the apparatus that runs this show, hamster wheel and all.

Interpersonal relationships among those who teach together are strained. Adjuncts are in direct competition for assigned classes with most of their co-workers. One’s schedule, availability, and class assignments are subject to the whims of whomever schedules them. When those instructors have multiple bosses (as I do) it’s difficult to rely on any dependable outcome. It’s not a stretch to say that, because of this, earnings fluctuate wildly.

Over the past decade or so, for-profits have also become very comfortable expecting and requiring adjuncts to bear the brunt of retention activities (at no added cost to the institutions, of course, because there has been no increase in adjunct pay). This practice, which effectively makes an adjunct a personal assistant to their students, is sometimes referred to as “proactive retention.” It typically includes emailing, texting, and calling all students who miss an assignment while also documenting every interaction. This practice extends after hours, and often demands that educators be available to students 24/7. While on its surface this may seem reasonable, this protocol reverses student responsibility for assignments and performance, making adjunct instructors responsible for the failures of their classroom. This illustrates the lunacy of being both an authority figure and a servant to student-customers, which often not only factors in retention ratios and failure rates (often beyond an educator’s control) but also student evaluations. This impossible situation can directly affect an adjunct’s income by way of assigned classes.

Additionally, the cost of compliance to professional development standards within the for-profit structure can result in hundreds of dollars of personal, out-of-pocket expenses. A decade ago, for-profit schools used to accept current work as professional development. Recently, for-profit schools have moved away from this model, instead requiring adjunct educators to complete outside certifications, attend training, or participate in conventions related to the topics that they teach. While common among elementary and secondary school teachers who have stable full-time positions, this requirement is an added burden to adjuncts’ (already stretched) pocketbooks. This method of professional development is almost unheard of in non-profit education. As enacted in the for-profit realm, this model costs adjunct educators money in order to prove they are professionally capable of a job that they already perform, while ignoring their actual professional accomplishments in their field.

Add to this the customary theft of intellectual property by coercion of instructor authored exams, presentations materials and lecture notes, and you have the perfect mill of interchangeable adjuncts, each trying harder to insure that this gig will not be their last and that they will be looked upon favorably when it is time to set the next session’s schedule.

In short, what you have is an insecure job with a lot of responsibility, multiple bosses to answer to, and very little authority.

As an ancillary, interchangeable part of the machine, I have become less human. In part, this is because I have never been a part of a union. It was never an option at any of my for-profit schools. Had I been, I might have had the security of a maternity leave, or the reliance of seniority, or the assurance that I could not be fired without due process. But as it stands, I have left my for-profit past with nothing in my pocket but dust and dirt.

The culture of most for-profit schools is dehumanizing and demanding. It demands that the needs of the administration and students come before the needs of the adjunct workers. I know that’s an unpopular thing to say out loud, because for educators there is pervasive pressure to always put the needs of students first. The problem with this approach is that it often comes at a cost—monetary, emotional, mental, and sometimes physical—to the adjunct educator. Yes, it’s an educator’s duty to educate, and (to some extent) show compassion toward their students. But it’s also a job, and one that deserves fair pay, equitable working conditions, and professional respect.

During my long haul as an adjunct, I haven’t seen a raise in almost a decade. I have seen my class sizes increase and assigned classes decrease. I have seen my administrative duties double (sometimes triple) and my professional development obligations become more costly. I’ve seen my workload increase and my earnings decrease. And now, I have watched, from the inside, the crumbling decline of the for-profit empires.

So what becomes of a school and its adjunct educators once a closure is announced? The answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that most jump ship. The impetus and fear of losing classes no longer applies. And this, in a way, is liberating. Why worry about future classes when there are no future classes?

The opposite is true of those who are employed full-time at my institution. They have a vested interest in getting the school over the finish line. That vested interest manifests itself in the form of a healthy severance package. Adjuncts, on the other hand, will receive an official email telling them that classes will only be offered to them while available. Most adjuncts cannot file for unemployment because we occupy a tedious, gray area of employment that is part contract worker, part on-call employee. In other words, those 5 bosses that I have calling me at 7:30 in the morning over a tedious detail concerning compliance will walk away with severance and unemployment. I, however, will walk away with nothing.

What about the “teach out?” While presented as an ethical decision on the part of the institution to honor their agreement in recruiting students, it’s actually a business decision made to protect their stockholders. They need to provide a way for their students to conceivably graduate, to ensure that student loans are not discharged, further burdening the institution.

This year, I will make approximately $7,000 from my for-profit employer. That’s not a lot, but it’s vital to my family. One of my former bosses referred to my income as a “fat paycheck,” which is absurd and laughable. My many bosses make ten times that much. Because these administrators control the narrative within the walls of their institution, adjuncts are discouraged from mentioning or questioning these details.

Do I believe that for-profit schools are predatory? Yes. Do I believe that they need to be to survive? No. But let’s face it. If their mission were really as altruistic as providing education to all, including those disadvantaged, they wouldn’t be closing. The whole mission is a lie.

Adjuncts at for-profit institutions have not been treated fairly.

Although I know that the most common response to this crisis has been something along the lines of, “well, get another job,” this completely sidesteps the issue. If you believe in being treated fairly, if you believe in being paid adequately, if you believe that years of dedicated service toward an employer deserve to be rewarded, and if you believe in job security, then you should acknowledge that these school closings are just as much about shafting adjuncts as they are about deceiving students.