Adjunct Teaching @ For-Profits: The Good, the Bad, and the (Copious) Ugly


Mcdonald By Melissa McDonald

In my area, for-profit colleges and universities have really stepped up recruiting efforts. When watching TV, for example, I see 2-3 commercials at every commercial break, often back-to-back and all “encouraging” the viewers to consider what a degree from such-and-such college can do for them. When I first noticed this trend, I wondered whether there were really that many for-profit colleges in this area. Now, the ads just annoy me.

For-profit institutions have also been in the news quite a bit lately (to read the for-profit college bad news buffet click here, here, here, and here) as these schools are the focus of newly proposed “gainful employment” rules (see here and here). The big problem reported has been that students from for-profit institutions are more likely to default on loans, but I have also seen articles about the for-profit institutions’ marketing ploys and other things.

What I really want to explore today is the Adjunct By Choice’s perspective. As an Adjunct By Choice, I have had the opportunity (misfortune?) to work for several for-profit schools at various points in my career. Can I just say honestly that as a result of my experiences I am hardly ever surprised by a “new” scandal or revelation about for-profit education? 

A few very general observations:

For starters, have you ever noticed that for-profit college websites include almost no information about their degrees, courses offerings, or faculty? The lack of information often makes me curious to know what the faculty turnover rate is, but my real focus for now is on teaching itself. Whenever I have taught at a for profit, I have found myself wondering what exactly I am teaching the students. For example, I may be hired to teach a course called one thing (e.g., “English Composition”), but actually end up having to teach something completely different in that same course. Sometimes, faculty teach courses they are not really qualified to teach. It makes me wonder whether whoever designs those courses—and there is almost always a course designer to make sure the course is exactly the same across campuses (which are usually more like bank branches spread across several states than campuses of a school)—knows anything about pedagogy and theory in my field.

I am not saying all for-profits are like that, and I have actually taught at places where the course is exactly what it is supposed to be. However, when you sign up to teach, you are taking a gamble because you usually do not see the course descriptions or syllabi before you are hired. In addition, you have to wonder what kinds of degrees are being offered if the courses you teach are not what they are supposed to be. Well, at least I wonder. (On a similar note, the kinds of majors offered at these schools are sometimes not the ones truly needed in the industry. Inside Higher Ed recently posted an article about this very thing.)

Regardless of courses and degrees offered, I do not trust anyone who tells me a four-year degree can be be completed in one or two years. Granted, I finished my undergrad work in three and a half years at a public university on the semester system, but I could not imagine being able to learn it all in less time than that. Some courses may be teachable in an accelerated format, but others need more time to be fully understood. Even worse, some online courses combine content that should be taught in different courses. I have witnessed students struggle with the basics when they were required to learn not only the basics, but also more advanced lessons by the end of the course and then subsequently fail (and perhaps then drop out and default on loans.

To be fair, I cannot honestly say that all for-profits are bad or that they differ completely from non-profits, at least not from this Adjunct By Choice’s perspective. Many for-profits depend on adjuncts, and so offer technology training. I’ve experienced some administrators who were very supportive of their faculty, not to mention visible to both students and faculty. Furthermore, I have taught at for-profit colleges that seem to believe students should not be simply handed a degree, but instead should be educated and knowledgeable professionals by the time they graduate. But as noted earlier, it is always a gamble.

I do not think for-profit institutions or the debates they inspire are going away anytime soon, but I sometimes question whether the powers that be are focusing on the right things. (Are you listening, U.S. Department of Education?)

About the Adjunct: Melissa McDonald is an adjunct instructor, writing consultant, and a military spouse all rolled into one. She earned a BA in English from Nicholls State University and an MA in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She has taught composition, technical writing, and literature courses, both face-to-face and online. She also has experience as a journal and a newsletter editor, a webmaster, and a writer. Outside of work, Melissa enjoys spending time with her family, playing with her cats, reading, writing, and cross stitching.

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