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Private Sector Education and Gainful Employment: Welcome to the Island of Misfits

September 23, 2010

Hi, my name is Amy and I am a misfit.  I’ve always been an outsider.  I was different than the other kids in school, different than the other employees I’ve ever worked with, am different than the other moms at the PTA; I’ve always been “different”.  Honestly I like it.  I like that I see the world in ways that others do not or can’t; I like that my perspective is sometimes strange or colorful, that my understanding is often skewed from the norm.  I am a misfit.

Too, I was the kid that sat in the high school principal’s office anywhere from two to four days a week, labeled as the one who either “did it or knew who did it”, so I was always the first to be questioned.  Looking back as an adult on my teen years, I was bored at school.  I was brighter than most of my teachers and vocal about it, which of course they didn’t appreciate; leading to my principal telling me that he was going to put my name on his office door because I spent more time in his office than he did.  Of course that was when I showed up, I missed some fifty odd days my senior year.  I didn’t want to be there and they didn’t really want me there.  Hi, my name is Amy and I am a misfit and trouble maker.

It is ironic that I’ve worked in education for the past 12 years.  Something that I once fled from is now my passion in life.  My joy comes from seeing students and graduates succeed, seeing them fulfill their dreams and reach their highest potential.  I worked in the public college sector for over six years and guess what?  My name is Amy and I am a misfit and trouble maker.  I didn’t fit in.  I tried, I really did.  I bought the suits and tied scarves around my neck, found the perfect briefcase, smoozed the right people and worked myself into an anxiety ridden, panic attacked life.  But my trouble maker self didn’t care about the suits or the scarves, she cared about the students and their needs, their goals and I was vocal about it.  I took action.  I took risks.  And at one point in time was told to “slow down because I was making other employees look bad”.

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My trouble-making misfit self thought it was about the student and service to the public I represented (it still does); however my perspective was clearly different than that of my leadership who just wanted to maintain the status quo.  So after six years of fighting the good fight, I headed out to find my island, which perhaps I might “fit in” on.  The old adage about fitting a square into a hole meant for a circle is true.  I was the square with ideas too big for their little circle.

For the past five years and 28 days I’ve worked in the private sector (for-profit) at a small private university.  I am still a misfit of sorts and occasionally a trouble maker; but they (I’ll say loosely) like it.  Sometimes when I think I am going to get yelled at, I get smiled at; sometimes it is a stern voice with half a crooked smile.  The people working in the private sector have an entrepreneurial spirit, they are pioneers and not stuck in the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mud.  Ingenuity and creativeness is welcomed and rewarded; all squares are welcomed.   We work with business and industry to make sure what we do is pertinent, we hold students accountable yet create an environment where they can flourish and we treat everyone like they are members of an extended family that crosses every imagined boundary.  In the world of top ten universities, state funded schools and 100 year old institutions of higher learning the private sector schools are misfits.  We like who we are and our graduates are proud of their alma mater, but the rest of the world doesn’t quite know what to think of us and looking from the outside in, can’t understand our passion or drive.  The proposed Gainful Employment regulation before the DOE has further labeled us as misfits and trouble-makers when it couldn’t be further from the truth.  Just because our financial/tax structure isn’t like everyone else (our colleges actually pay taxes too) does not lessen our passion to educate and mission to provide the workforce with trained workers for the present and future.  In fact my university is family held and that family environment extends into our students lives and way past graduation.

When I look in the mirror I see our students.  For the past five years I have worked a full time and a part time job, raised three kids as a single mom and have gone to school full time earning a BSBA and an MBA.  This is not my sob story but it is a reflection of who our students are.  Single parents, working adults, underserved populations, high school misfits, those who are afraid of college,  people who have failed at other institutions and people who hit the age of 30 and realized that in order to build a brighter future you have to get off your @$$ and create the change you want to see in your life. Those who have never thought that they would ever be “college material”, never had anyone believe in them, or anyone to encourage them.  Those that took that bold first step to enroll into college to build a future.  Now I am not labeling our students and alumni as “misfits” but in many cases they are unique and different in comparison to the traditional college student at the traditional university.

I am angry.  Not that anyone that can do anything about it cares, but I am angry.  This gainful employment regulation is discrimination at its finest and it affects some of the people I care about most, the students and graduates I’ve watched flourish over the past five years and see great potential in for next millennium.  It is going to further limit opportunities for sections of the population that already have limited opportunities.  As a teacher and administrator I have supported students through cancer and illness, homelessness, abusive relationships, deaths, deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and twists and turns that I could never imagine my life taking and many have made it through to the other side and declared “I am the first college graduate in my family”, they have set the bar for the people around them and reached that first rung in their career ladder story.  With this gainful employment  proposal we would not have had the opportunity to support many of them because our paths would have not crossed if the federal government told them they could not have the monetary support to support an education for a career they envision themselves in at the college of their choice.

The Gainful Employment proposal compares ratios of new graduate’s income to their school debt to see if the employment obtained is “gainful” within a certain time period.  My thoughts about this are that no one starts their career where they want to see themselves.   There is no magic job wand that makes dreams come true, it comes with hard work, networking and leveraging opportunities; education is the foundation.  I’ll never forget the day a grad called to tell me that she had landed a job and had more than doubled her salary.  My first thought was “WOW” doubled your salary that is incredible.  After talking to her I found out that she is in Tennessee where the minimum wage at the time was $5.85 an hour and indeed landing a job at $12 and hour was more than doubling her salary; a door opened by her education and a huge success for her.  She has since has found further success and has gone well beyond that first rung of her career ladder.  I have to ask, “Would she have passed the gainful test?”  That would depend on who you asked; the graduate would say yes.  She would say that education changed her life.

My other issue with the GE proposal is that they are picking on only one sector of education.  I am not going to into the statistics; there are a million blogs and reports you can gather those from.  But rather I’ll tell you a story that proves my point.  I was at a job fair when a man walked up the table and said, “I went to college and it didn’t do me any good”.  So I asked him, “What degree did you earn?  His reply was “General Education Associate Degree”.  I will not name the school, but I ask you, how many of you have ever seen a job posting looking for someone with an associate degree in general education?  This man’s state funded alma mater did him a great disservice in having him spend his money and time on a degree that is so non-specific that it led to no outcome whatsoever.  On the other hand for-profit college’s educations teach specific skills that lead to specific careers in specific industries.  Why isn’t the public sector, non-profits being held to the same standards?  Why are we even entertaining this proposal that not only discriminates against a sector of education that does lead to employment but more importantly several demographic pools of citizens?

Hi, my name is Amy and I am a misfit and trouble maker who works for misfits who employ misfits who service unique learners on our little island that changes lives.  I am angry.  I am a career college graduate.  I am a mom.  I am a volunteer.  I am a teacher.  I am a voter.  I am a supporter. I am blogger.  I am an occasional troublemaker.  I work in an industry that isn’t perfect but also isn’t bad.  I am asking you, whoever you are, to oppose the gainful employment proposal.  Write to your congress member and ask them to oppose it and ask them to approach it in a different way, a way that is fair and equal.  The regulation needs to be postponed, rethought and then reapplied to the entire higher education industry.

I close with a quote from a fellow “trouble maker” and possible misfit, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”  Whether we are talking about the staircase of life, the career ladder or stepping foot into a college classroom for the first time, faith in ourselves, a higher power, another person is what guides us.  Right now my faith is on roughly 7000 students that my private sector, family owned university serves and I simply ask that gainful employment be revisited so that we can continue fostering success stories.  The futures of future college graduates depend on it.

In your service,

Amy

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