College Inc. (2010)
In one scene from the college comedy film Accepted, the dean of an elite fictional institution, Harmon College, is having a private meeting with one of the school’s fraternity leaders. “Do you know what makes Harmon a great college?” the dean asks the student. “Rejection. The exclusivity of any university is judged primarily by how many students it rejects.” With its crimson colors and prominent “H” in the design Harmon College is clearly meant to invoke Harvard University as a representation of all the prestige and privilege of America’s traditional colleges and universities. On the flipside is the South Harmon Institute of Technology (yeah, that’s right. S.H.I.T.) a school started on a lark by young Bartelby Gaines (Justin Long) when he got rejected from all seven schools he applied to, including Harmon. These ideas of “rejection” and “acceptance” recur throughout the film. Harmon College is predicated on rejection while South Harmon Institute of Technology is the place of acceptance. During an impromptu assembly at the new South Harmon, Bartelby Gaines realizes he is in front of an auditorium full of lovable losers like himself, people who didn’t make it into the school they wanted and who just wanted an opportunity to go to college somewhere, anywhere. He then gives a fiery speech to this audience of rejected students telling them, “We accept you! We accept your flaws!”
I’m not sure about the background of the screenwriters or the director of this film, but clearly someone involved in this project was familiar with the for-profit college industry. Accepted was released in theaters in 2006 but didn’t do all that well at the box office. Perhaps people saw it as just another stupid college movie, and yes, at times it does play out like so many of these silly formulaic college comedies. But behind the predictable frat jokes and sophomoric toilet humor is a film that comes close to brilliance in the way that it captures the spirit and ideology of for-profit colleges.
The film mostly follows the story of Bartleby Gaines (Justin Long, probably best known as the “Mac” guy) as he graduates from high school. Bartleby is a lovable slacker. He’s clearly intelligent and shrewd, but he’s also a lackluster student. While Bartebly gets rejected by every college that he applies to, his best friend Sherman (Jonah Hill, star of Superbad) gets accepted to his dream school, the prestigious Harmon College. To avoid disappointing his parents Bartleby hatches a scheme to fabricate an acceptance letter to a fake school. He enlists the computer whiz Sherman to help him design a realistic-looking website for the institution. When Bartleby realizes that he will need an actual physical campus to keep the ruse going, he finds an abandoned psychiatric hospital near Harmon College and renovates it to look like a college campus. He then gets his uncle Ben Lewis (the great comedian Lewis Black) and has him pretend to be the Dean of the college. Ben is a washed up alcoholic who dropped out of grad school years ago, and his rants about the lies of higher education (in typical Lewis Black style) are some of the best moments in the film.
At first Bartelby put up the website just to fool his parents. But he is shocked to realize other people also visited the website, and on the first day of classes hundreds of students pour into the school with $10,000 tuition checks in hand. That’s when Bartleby figures out maybe this starting up your own college thing isn’t such a bad idea. Thus the South Harmon Institute of Technology is born, welcoming these self-proclaimed “SHITheads”, these students who also did not get accepted into traditional colleges. South Harmon Institute of Technology becomes the scrappy underdog we root for, and all those snooty elitists at Harmon College are just trying to block their shine.
The circumstances around the founding of South Harmon are not exactly that of a for-profit school like University of Phoenix. Real life for-profit colleges are backed by investors and were started from the beginning with the idea of maximizing profits. However, Accepted does manage to tap into the image that for-profit schools project about themselves, and I think the film inadvertently offers up a cautionary tale to those of us interested in preserving public higher education.
It is important to see that for-profit colleges are not just about finding ways to make colleges profitable, and not just about applying market rationality to higher education by arguing that the bottom line benefits all. No, for-profit colleges have been as successful as they have been so far because they have found ways to tap into the hopes and dreams of people struggling to give themselves a better life. Their spiritual message is one of acceptance. In their propaganda, all for-profit colleges are plucky startups like South Harmon Institute of Technology and all traditional colleges (private or public) are crusty elitist spoil-sports like Harmon College. Here in New York City the subway cars are full of for-profit college ads persuading people to get a college degree no matter if they have kids or are already working two jobs. We will accommodate your needs, they say. The traditional college is elitist and exclusionary, while the for-profit school is democratic and non-judgmental
This should come as no surprise. Thomas Frank’s political bestseller What’s The Matter With Kansas explored how the right wing has endeared itself to the very working class that it has spent most of the last three decades disenfranchising and undermining through unregulated casino capitalism and aggressive anti-union tactics. The for-profit college phenomenon is simply the latest chapter in a long history of Wall Street exploiting and undermining the American working class while selling them a false sense of empowerment.
The PBS Frontline documentary College, Inc. pointed to some of the numbers that have raised concerns about what is happening in the for-profit college industry. 20 billion dollars of federal loans and grants have been used by students to attend for-profit colleges. (i.e. these profitable companies have been built through those dastardly “government handouts”) Today for-profits account for 10% of the nation’s college students, but consume 25% of the federal aid. Defenders of the for-profit colleges rightly point out that student loans have been soaring out of control at the traditional colleges, so it’s hardly fair that for-profits should take all the blame for this financial problem. They are right. Student loan debt overall is a $750 billion dollars, roughly equal to the entire amount of credit card debt in the U.S. However the problem is that for-profit colleges account for 10% of the nation’s students, but account for 44% of the loan defaults. These are the makings of another destructive financial bubble, maybe one just as ruinous as the housing market crash.
And I’ll concede the for-profits another point: If anything they have only accentuated the extortionist practices already present in the traditional colleges. For instance, traditional colleges have cut deals with textbook companies that force students to pay for books at exorbitant costs. In my own field of English, students are forced to pay $60 a pop for crappy composition readers they’ll probably never read again, mainly because they are full of worthless insipid articles from Newsweek passed off as models of good writing. Tuition and fees are going through the roof year after year. This is all done knowing that most students will just accept these burdensome costs as the necessary evil of higher education. The students increasingly rely on loans and credit cards to cover the costs and keep compounding their debt in order to stay enrolled from year to year.
One of the key moments for me in College, Inc. comes near the end in an interview with Mark DeFusco, a former administrator at the University of Phoenix. When asked if education should be a business, DeFusco paused for a beat or two, then said: “I’m happy that there are places in the world where people can sit down and think. We need that. But that’s very expensive. And not everybody can do that. So for the vast majority of folks who don’t get that privilege, then I think it’s a business.”
I know documentary editing can be misleading, and any stray quote can be pulled out as a “gotcha” moment. But I do think DeFusco articulated something that is particularly disgusting about the for-profit schools: This thinly veiled contempt and condescension towards the very students who come to their schools. The idea that the humanities are all fine and good for well-off students, but a waste of time for poor students is one of the principle ways that the for-profit schools can and will end up reproducing the very inequality that they claim to be eradicating. The lofty world of ideas is fine for students from wealthy backgrounds, but the poor need “practical” skills. It’s fine for all those rich kids to develop the ability to think creatively, to question age-old assumptions, to develop the kind of historical sensibilities and knowledge necessary for participation in a democracy – but we need to put you poor people to work, not fill your head with all these high-falutin’ ideas.
In fact what they are saying is that working class students are not even worthy of the vaunted Western tradition of Great Ideas that conservatives in the 1980s were trying so hard to defend from all those “intellectually bankrupt” and “therapeutic” multiculturalists. Again, we have one of those shrewd reversals: it is now the Right and the for-profit colleges who claim to be the champions of multiculturalism. If you let them tell it, Wall Street is the only entity in America really standing up for the rights of minorities to receive an education. And now, they argue, it is at the traditional college where the administrators stand in the doorway of the school, like George Wallace in Tuscaloosa, refusing to allow hardworking black and brown students access to higher education.
This is where I think Accepted unintentionally hit the nail on the head. The administrators and defenders of actual for-profit colleges know that many Americans see traditional colleges as elitist and exclusionary (even when at public schools like CUNY, people have been fighting for years to have wider, affordable access to higher education). If we are not careful we will hand the for-profits exactly this type of pseudo-populist energy that Bartleby wins among the students at South Harmon. And I think it is especially important that in our critiques of for-profit education that we do not demonize the students who have chosen to pursue their education at these schools. Defenders of for-profit education love to use their students as human shields to deflect criticism, as if anyone who has a problem with for-profit education really has a problem with these hard-working students who just want to go to college.
In recent months there have been numerous rallies to defend public education. Over the last few weeks Europe has exploded with student protests against budget cuts. Here in the U.S. the documentary Waiting for Superman, about charter schools at the elementary and secondary level, has upped the ante and forced people to take sides in the debates about education profiteering at all levels. However I think the movement for public education suffers from the same malaise affecting the American left as whole: We are too comfortable playing defense. Even after the American people elected a Democratic administration into the White House, the left was still preoccupied with the latest stupid statements from Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, allowing them to set the terms of debate. The result has been a weak health care reform bill with no public option, and now Obama signing a bill to give more tax cuts to the rich. (Not to say he didn’t want to do that anyway, but that’s beside the point. He should have been pushed in a different direction.) In order to really make a difference for working people we can’t continue to keep relying on defensive measures. I realize that defending education budgets as they are now is absolutely necessary. And I respect the effort that organizers have already put in to this movement. I just hope that while we “defend” and “protect” our public schools from further commercialization of education, that we also find a way to start talking about the expansion of public education. We need more compelling stories about how public education has been essential to the project of democracy. And we must push for real, affordable opportunities for students to gain access to college without a lifetime of debt.