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Postsecondary Education in Crisis

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Mitch Talenfeld

An Urgent Call for Leaders to put the American People Ahead of Ideological Differences

School was never easy for me. To this day, I still find reading extremely difficult, having to reread passages over and over to understand. However, I was fortunate to have had a mother and father who really cared and did everything they could to encourage me in all of my efforts.
Despite their efforts to help me, I am one of four children including a sister who is developmentally disabled, so my parents were unable to keep up with the many things happening in my life and likely distracted them from helping me in school as much as they wanted. It was only in the 11th grade that a light bulb finally went on in my head and I started thinking seriously about school. But by then, I was so far behind, and my grades were so bad, that university was out. My only educational path forward was community college. However, that did not go so well either as life and typical teenage distractions got in my way. I eventually dropped out and since then, have tried numerous times to go back. Unfortunately, juggling real-world responsibilities with the rigors of classroom activities can be extremely challenging, even for a person as self-motivated as me.

As the CEO of a marketing company, I really did not need the degree, but Iwas determined to finish what I had started so many years before. In August of 2013, I re-enrolled in community college for my fourth time. I calculated that by taking two online courses a semester, it would take me around six years of part-time classes to finish. But once again, I ran into more hurdles, one of which was an Algebra class in an online environment. When I tried to get some help when I was struggling with a concept, I was asked to set up an appointment and show up at my professor’s office during his limited office hours. That wasn’t going to work with my demanding schedule. Furthermore, considering Statistics and Calculus were on my horizon, it was apparent to me that I would need extra help.

I immediately began searching for an alternative plan. That search led me to a program and a college that actually fit my needs. And as a result of my continued persistence, after almost 44 years of on-again, off-again classes, I am proud to announce that I recently finished my last class and have finally earned my college degree!

We always hear politicians, and people in the media talk about how unskilled middle-class jobs are disappearing. We also hear them discuss the skills-gap and the need to re-educate America. Politicians use bumper-sticker slogans like “free-education for all,” and proclaim community college as the answer to educating the public. But I can tell you through numerous years of me trying, community college does not work for everyone. And that is why I am writing this paper. I want to tell my story about my experiences, which are contrary to the narrative that has been making recent headlines—a narrative that is about to destroy private-sector career education. This very sector of education helped me, along with millions of others who needed the help, to succeed.

Candidly, I never really considered going to a private college—profit or non-profit—knowing it would cost more than that of a tax-subsidized community college tuition. Why would I? Even though I was a slow reader, I was a bright self-motivated person who did not need his hand held or outside motivation to complete my education. Honestly, after my fourth attempt of going back to college, I realized there were areas in which I needed the extra help—that is if I were to everearn my degree. My need for extra help and my interest in a more focused degree are what led me to Keiser University.

Keiser offered a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies, which enabled me to utilize my previous community college credits. However, during the enrollment process, I found out that they did not offer part-time classes, which frightened me and almost dissuaded me from enrolling. I could not imagine being able to manage four courses a semester with all of my other job-related and personal responsibilities—particularly when I was having such a challenging time handling two online classes at a time at my previous school. However, the people I spoke with assured me, and then I found out later, that their one-class-at-a-time approach and other support-systems would actually make it easier—not harder, to succeed. I decided to take the chance and I enrolled.

I was amazed at how different this online program was from what I experienced at my previous community college. To start, their one-class-at-a-time approach simplified everything. Even though I was forced to increase my course-load to four classes a semester, the classes actually became easier. This was because the semesters were split into four distinct and separate four-week long segments, enabling me to focus on one area of study at a time. This also meant that I no longer needed to juggle multiple assignments, papers and tests from all my courses at once. Instead, I was able to concentrate my efforts, which eliminated the complexities and actually enabled me to handle a full-time schedule. Much to my surprise, I was succeeding as a full-time student. And as a result, I finished three years earlier than I expected.  At my age, 61, time really matters!

But that was not the only difference I experienced when I started. The university’s entire academic approach was different. For the most part, my last community college’s online program had limited student/teacher interaction. I was always the one initiating contact when I needed something, and I waited on hold or in long lines to get answers to any of my questions. Keiser on the other hand took a very interactive, hands-on approach. There was not a month that went by without me receiving a call from someone from the school. I was amazed that the entire university team was accessible when I needed support.

Another wonderful difference contrasting the two educational systems was their weekly, live, online session with the professors. At least once a week, every class enabled me to participate in an hour-long interactive session where professors presented the week’s materials. It permitted students to ask questions and empowered them to get personalized assistance just when they needed the help. Honestly, most of the time I viewed the recorded sessions later in the week as the system was flexible for students like myself who had a difficult time adhering to a schedule.

But what I enjoyed the most were the weekly discussion boards, which were a required part of the program. The discussion boards were where students interacted the most, going through that week’s course content. This is where I met some amazing people and really gained an appreciation for the real value of a private sector education. Every class began with student introductions, which gave me insights to people’s backgrounds. What I found interesting was the diverse student-body in all of my classes.  My classes were filled with single working moms, people for whom English is a second language, active military personnel and their families, veterans, older students like myself and others who did not have the time to go to brick and mortar classrooms—but all possessing the common interest of improving their lives. Fellow student stories were inspiring. It was astounding to me to see how people managed to hold down jobs and take care of families—all while attaining their college degrees. In hind-sight, I realize that I had it much easier compared to most of my fellow students, who had many more demands on their time than I.

One particular woman stands out to me. She and I had six classes together, and I could always count on her to take opposing viewpoints in our weekly discussions. It seemed that she would always wait until the end of the week to respond to my posts, too late for me to defend my positions, which would really get me frustrated. It was almost like she was taunting me. But what I did not know in my early classes with her was she grew up in the foster-care system, and was a disabled, single mother of three, who worked full-time—amongst all of her other responsibilities. I also did not know that she did not own a computer! This was buried in one of her later posts on the discussion boards and was the reason she would make her posts on Sunday afternoon. She did all of her computer work on Sunday. That was the only time of the week she could get access to a computer to take her classes. I cannot tell you how embarrassed that made me feel.

For months, I was so focused on my frustrations, never once considering what she was going through in life trying to succeed. For months, I never considered her perspective, a viewpoint that I will never be able to comprehend. How arrogant of me! This remarkable woman found a university system that was able to adapt to her needs. The fact that she was able to make her way through college and graduate in the face of such adversity is not only a testament to her own grit and determination, but it is also a testament to a private sector education system that enables people like her—the people who find it difficult to learn in large-scale community college environments—to succeed..

Knowing what I have learned in my educational endeavors, I have an even greater respect for the innovation, creativity and flexibility offered by private-sector colleges, despite what we hear in the media. And honestly, it really frustrates me when I hear attacks on this sector which in my opinion, plays a critical role in the future of America. What politicians and others never consider is that every uninformed or slanted media story degrades the educational credentials that millions of Americans have worked so hard to earn. Every one of these attack-stories, well-meaning or not, demean the work students have put into their studies—the nights, weekends and holidays they and their families sacrificed to improve their lives! These stories totally ignore the majority of students who have persevered through the challenges they have faced in life to earn their degrees!

One might ask why I have such a passion for this sector of education. The answer is simple—because I have been working and involved with private career schools, colleges and universities for more than thirty years. As a board member of The Florida Association of Postsecondary Schools and Colleges and chair of their communications committee, I am continually reading and doing research on attack-articles on the sector. It disturbs me when I read about students who have had bad experiences with sector schools. But what disturbs me even worse is when I find out that most of the students in the schools targetedin these articles were really pleased with their educational experiences, completed their programs, and went on to get jobs in their chosen fields. What most of the articles I see do not say to their readers is that the outcomes of private sector career colleges and universities are equal to, or better than their public sector counter-parts.

Take for instance Keiser University, which according to the Department of Education, has a graduation rate of 68%. When one compares this to graduation rate with Miami-Dade College, the community college I previously attended, one would find that Miami-Dade College’s graduation rate is only 35%. I could include hundreds of similar examples showing the same thing, but the bottom line is that most community colleges have graduation rates that are poor and most private sector institutions’ graduation rates are better.

We have some real problems in America that need to be fixed. But I urge anyone reading this paper to reach out to our leaders and encourage them to refocus their efforts toward solving our real educational problems, instead of concentrating on an ideology that will lead our country into another even more serious crisis—no place for students such as myself to get the kind of education we need in order to succeed—particularly in light of today’s technologically advanced workforce requirements.

About the Author: Mitch Talenfeld is the CEO of MDT Marketing, an Internet marketing and technology firm, on the Board of Directors of the Florida Association of Postsecondary Schools and Colleges, the chairperson of the 2016 Career Education Colleges and Universities annual convention, and the proud 2016 graduate of Keiser University, with a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in management and marketing.

References

Department of Education. (2015). Keiser University – Fort Lauderdale. College Navigator. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/?s=FL&ct=1+2&ic=1&pg=5&id=135081

Department of Education. (2015). Miami-Dade College. College Navigator. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/?s=FL&ct=1+2&ic=1&pg=6&id=135717

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