Tuesday, June 15, 2010
"Get your hot careers right here!"
After a three-year stint at a for-profit art school (that ended in a certificate in something nebulous, not a degree), I started telling my friends (and myself) "Never go to a college that has a commercial." At the time, even though my negative recommendation made some big assumptions, most colleges that a "college-bound type" would even want to attend wouldn't have had commercials anyway. The only colleges with commercials were the ones who budgeted for such crassness: for-profit schools. Once I delved into the workings of for-profit schools, whether they had constantly airing commercials or not, I discovered some ugly truths that made me feel certain my continuing campaign against them was a good thing. However, in recent years, advertising (and, similarly, commodification) has become more entrenched in society than ever. Today traditional non-profit colleges as well as some prestigious universities and even publicly funded schools have begun to advertise on TV, radio and billboards.
For-profit schools have commercials because they are businesses. When they are "founded" (or more accurately, started up) an advertising budget is something they already have in mind. Thanks to the high tuition they will charge and the private assistance they will not give out, they won't have any trouble funding or paying themselves back for their commercial spots. Their TV ads reach every level of the population, college bound or not, and convince them they can do anything if they just get a degree in nursing, chefery, fashion, or even better, advertising! Their student populations grow rapidly, but the drop-out rates do too. The students who stick with it will not likely "earn their degree in 3 years!!!" because they will be coaxed (or coerced) into changing their majors more than once, and convinced to take classes they don't need. At some point, many will just leave, degreeless and in debt. The kind of students these schools attract -- lower income, poor secondary education, caught between careers with a family, first generation students with no precedent for what college is supposed to be like (that last category was me) -- do not have the power in their "word of mouth" to do much about all this, especially as the TV ads multiply and accreditation requirements get looser and looser. (My art school, whose credits could transfer nowhere at the time I left, is now nationally accredited to give BAs because they added a shitty Comp 101 and Earth Science class.)
Traditional, non-profit schools, i.e. private liberal arts colleges (where I finally did get a real degree in a real discipline!) do not start up every day, and many of them are already long established. Advertising was not in the original "business model" back in 1887 or whenever, and while these schools have had to adapt to changing educational marketplace (blah!), they usually have done so by hiring real live recruiters, getting a website, using focused, opt-in direct mailings based on SAT or GRE scores, etc. This is all a kind of advertising, but it is very different from a TV commercial. The colleges are reaching college-bound seniors and potential graduate students, not the general TV-absorbing public. The non-profit colleges may not get as high a financial return on their traditional recruiting methods as the for-profit schools will with their radio-blasting ads, but they do get students who match the school well, and who will likely complete a degree there and become a future asset to the school, whether through publications, volunteerism, alumni donations, or just by association. (I wonder if Bard College uses the line "Study at Steely Dan's old school!" Probably not.)
But as I said, the marketplace has forced many traditional non-profit schools to make their break into television advertising. Some of them focus this on adults, some on the general college-bound population. They do not use lines like "earn a degree fast!" or "start your dream career." They focus on personal qualities of the potential students, use more realistic imagery of people in many disciplines (not just "technology" or "nursing"), and they never, never yell at you.
I was surprised when my new school (as opposed to "my old school"), DePaul University, a well-respected and very large private university, began advertising to adults. I will have to break my own rule, I thought, and go to this school with a damn commercial! The commercial was not really aimed at me however, even though I am by most accounts a non-traditional student, because I am in a very traditional discipline. The commercial was for potential returning students and other older people who already have jobs. Continuing education and professional graduate studies are experiencing a huge influx of these kinds of students, and I can't blame DePaul for jumping on the bandwagon. In fact, they are probably doing these people a service, if they can get through to them, by saving them from the for-profit schools that might otherwise snatch them up in a moment of career-change desperation (University of Phoenix is probably the biggest "desperate professional adult" snatcher). At DePaul they can receive all the government aid they are due, apply for assistantships and other student work (or continue their regular jobs thanks to flexible class schedules), and be encouraged by caring faculty to finish their degrees and get back out there, and back home to their families. All of this and a solid degree, for about the same price (less if the student has awards) as a for-profit degree that might cause noses at job interviews to instantly turn up, while the quite probably unsubsidized student loan interest for the U of Phoenix tuition just accrues and accrues...
So I let DePaul slide with their appeal to professional adults. Then this week, I saw a commercial for Loyola University, another good private school, aimed at potential undergraduates! They talked about doors of opportunity, showed their signature red gowns at graduation, and people both young and old opening the "doors" and trekking along Lake Michigan. It wasn't all that bad. The verbiage, like in DePaul's commercial, was about personal potential, not careers. No one said how long the degree would take, or where you would go afterward. They didn't promise anything but an education.
Perhaps that -- the education -- is where it's at. That is to say, if you are considering school because you want an education, then you will likely end up at an institution that offers just that. Education provides the tools and mindset and confidence you need for whatever "career" you might have in mind, not just the ones that are "hot." And if you're looking for an education, then it's likely that whatever you want to do with yourself you probably don't think of as a career -- I certainly don't. It's more like a life path or something cheesy like that. A bunch of English degrees do not guarantee my future way to make money, but they do give me a good chance at my future way of being. But if you are in this for a career, a way to make money, and nothing more...well then expect to pay a lot of money for that, and to not really be fundamentally changed by your experiences (unless you count becoming someone who's fundamentally pissed off).*
*I shouldn't be such a jerk. I'll qualify that last sentence in the last paragraph by saying this: if you have a definite career goal in mind and nursing school, for instance, will get you there, any school that teaches what you need in any kind of environment can probably give you the tools for your career. I know some successful graduates of design colleges too. Between COD and Aurora I was even offered a swank-ish graphic design job just because of my ad art certificate and portfolio (which I turned down because full time Englishing would not be compatible with 40 hours of corporate work, not to mention the soul-sucking factor). My problem with these schools is that they don't just invite that specific potential nurse or potential ad artist population to apply -- they invite everyone who's ever put on a band-aid or owned a sketchbook, accept every one of them, and then take a lot of their money.
Finally, I have noticed that publicly funded schools, especially community colleges, have begun airing commercials and posting many billboards within their districts. I don't know where to start with the budgetary concerns this might cause some people (our local tax dollars funding billboards!?), but on the whole I think the community colleges are exactly the kind of schools who really need to start advertising. DePaul and Loyola jumped on the bandwagon to corner a certain segment or two that they may have lost to unscrupulous schools. Community colleges, on the other hand, are losing a huge portion of their potential students to these schools, because they have the same target -- students who are not prepared for or who do not wish to attend university. It is true that in some areas the for-profit schools are actually taking on the spill-over that the community colleges are not equipped to handle. This is a particularly bad problem in Colorado, where new career colleges are sprouting up and getting dubiously accredited every day, while the state/municipal schools struggle for funding. But here in Illinois, even during horrible economic times (we are second in empty pockets only to burgeoning California), many of our community colleges are striving to expand by advertising, building up, going after more funding, and making small tuition increases to cover some of this. They don't want the for-profits handling the spill-over, and I don't blame them. The Chicagoland area is blanketed with career colleges, both local and national sorts, and so are our TV airwaves.
One billboard I often pass says, "College of DuPage. A great value." It's kind of funny, but it's true. College of DuPage is one of the best, if not the best, community colleges in the midwest. They are doing their part to let their potential students know that you can go there for little or nothing with aid, and get the same certificates and associates degrees that would cost you your ass at the for-profit school down the street. While C.O.D. ("College of Dreams," "Cod State"...) doesn't have shitty BAs and BSs to hand out like many of the for-profit schools have somehow managed to become accredited to do, they can grant you an AA or AAS that will transfer you right into a state or private school with junior standing -- because the state of Illinois says so. I got my humble re-start at College of Dupage, paid NOTHING to go there for two years and earn all my gen eds (thanks, Uncle Sam), and transferred to a four year college without a hitch, knowing what I wanted to do there. And because Aurora University is a non-profit school, I continued to get every form of financial aid the government allows (not just loans -- some for-profits only give loans), as well as generous private grants from the school. If only the people at home on the couch knew that they could do something like that (or even just go to the community college to get their nursing or electronics AAS!) maybe some of them would give it a go. And not go into debt, even if the whole school thing doesn't work out.
I have yet to see any commercials for Ivy League or sub-Ivy League schools. They are probably resisting as long as they can. The only local schools that make this sub-Ivy category are Northwestern University and The University of Chicago. Their claims to fame are their top-tier traditional graduate programs; programs which don't need advertising. Potential students already know about them, and covet places in them violently! More applications to read doesn't seem like something these schools really desire or need.
So I'll begin at DePaul in the fall, a school that has "a strong emphasis on recruiting first-generation university students [that's me!] and those from disadvantaged backgrounds while striving for academic rigor," and I will strive. While I have some fears that my classes might be a mixed bag of academic English types like myself and publishing career seeking women drawn in by TV commercials, I'm sure it will all turn out okay. They may have run an ad, and it may rub me the wrong way a little, but they are certainly not profiting off of me (unless you count the possible intellectual dividends...ha!). Go Demons.