The Potemkin College in Herald Square: An Inside Look at ASA, the For-Profit College Fighting Off a RICO Lawsuit

08/27/2014 01:04 pm ET | Updated Oct 27, 2014

It begins with the street-level employees, the ones who patrol the blocks surrounding the midtown campus, college brochures in hand.

"College information, college information?" They call it out again and again, sometimes in a familiar Queens accent, but just as often a Dominican one, or perhaps Russian. "How much money are you making right now? With a college degree from ASA, you could be earning more."

Often they are students of the college itself (or former ones) and usually they are very friendly, polite people, simply looking to make a few extra bucks in-between classes. At other times they are aggressive and rude to a point that beggars belief--even making unwanted sexual remarks to the potential student-customers. They mix in with the swarming crowds entering Macy's or headed towards the Empire State Building, the pretend-monks handing out "world peace" literature for a donation, or the hustlers hawking fake-designer purses and mix CDs. Now move inside, up the old "Daffy's" elevators and into the corridors of the college.

"That professor can't kick me out of the class," says one student in the hallway. Another agrees: "Mm hmm, that's right, they can't kick us out. I took out loans to pay for these classes."

It sounds like an odd statement coming from a college student--at most schools, certainly the big state university I attended, there are all kinds of fun and novel ways to get kicked out, of both class and school itself--but many of these students view ASA College through a customer service lens. "You have the money, now give me a passing grade" seems to be the mentality. The administration--and certainly the academic "advisers"--encourage this notion, while the faculty mostly rails against it.

Of course, each class holds those precious few diligent students who never miss a day or an assignment, offer thoughtful commentary, provoke involved classroom discussions, and turn in beautifully-composed essays. So I want to be careful not to generalize about the student population at ASA College--because actually, that's impossible to do. The student body comes from every corner of the globe; in addition to the diversity of all the native New Yorkers, there are loads of Russians, Ukrainians, Poles and other Eastern-Europeans, plenty of Chinese and Koreans, a very small number from Japan and Western Europe, vast amounts from the Dominican Republic, contingents of Indians and Pakistanis, Nigerians, Ghanaians, get the idea. This is one of the best things about the school. At ASA, there is an eclectic mix of cultures and outlooks, and classroom discussions can be illuminating and educational in a way that few other schools can match.

There are ESL (English as a Second Language) programs at the college for all skill levels, in addition to the associate's degrees and professional certificates for business administration, various health disciplines, computer technology, and criminal justice. A few international students are there on academic visas in order to work illegally at various under-the-table jobs to earn money to send back home. For them, the primary focus is earning money for their families, and ASA is a means to that end; ironically they often turn out to be among the best students, as their grades typically need to remain high in order to stay in the country.

Many are there simply to learn or hone their English, and this is another thing that ASA is quite good at: if a student needs to bone up on their English language skills, the college can definitely help them. Some of the most talented, driven and engaging professors I've ever met work in the ESL and English departments there. Like most schools, a few professors are coasting, too--but overwhelmingly, the faculty is dedicated, motivated, and possesses advanced degrees from reputable universities.

If this sounds like I'm pointing out a few good qualities to soften up the target before I unload, it's because that's exactly what I'm doing. ASA is an overpriced, predatory, and disingenuous institution suckling at the government teat, and enrolling/tricking students who often don't understand the difference between an AA and a BA, or of a for-profit college and a state school or private university. In many cases the student-customers seem to have only a rudimentary understanding of the loan papers they've signed, or the exact nature of the debts they've accrued.

A very few students (often Eastern Europeans, Russians or Indians) already have degrees from universities back home. For them, the curriculum is a cakewalk, and ASA itself merely a stepping stone into a school like Baruch or Hunter. Sharper locals make the same choice--some of them soon recognize their mistake, and transfer as soon as possible. These are the students I often feel proudest of, or least guilty about--those savvy enough (notice I don't say "smart enough"; it isn't really about intelligence) to recognize what ASA is, recognize its limitations, and quickly back away to a safe distance.

With some very notable exceptions, the students from the five boroughs, the locals, are depressingly poor writers, readers, and students. Many come from low-income households. There is a smattering of obviously wealthy international students, but the locals are almost always struggling economically, or close to it.

Foreign students sometimes gasp aloud, so taken aback are they at their American peers' attitude, lack of respect, and sheer ignorance. You can practically watch the dawning comprehension that they've chosen the wrong school play out on their faces. Nothing really brings home the fact that our public schools have failed these kids more than this realization: children of peasant-farmers from the backwaters of the Hunan province, who've lived in America for three months, have a better grasp of verb tenses than many American-born and raised high school graduates from the five boroughs.

Some students (again, usually locals, but not always) will answer phones during class, shout profanity at each other directly outside of a class in progress, or walk in a full hour late to an hour-and-a-half class, loudly engaged in a conversation with someone else (or often, themselves), interrupt during a lecture to blurt something inappropriate--things one would expect any graduates of a public high school to understand are not okay in an academic environment. Emotional screaming matches and even fistfights sometimes break out in the halls--a rude awakening for those students who (wrongly) assumed they were leaving high school antics behind them.

All of this is not to make the point that "kids and their rap are annoying," or that "poor people are jerks." Sure they can be jerks, just like rich people can, and ASA manages to attract its average share of those jerks. The point is, everyone--even the jerks--deserves a quality education, and they don't deserve to be misled. ASA is making false promises, offering very little in exchange for tuition, and ushering students on through the system despite their failures. Students have been known to get resounding Fs, plagiarize entire papers, cheat on tests, and show up for less than 50% of classes...only to skate on through by appealing to higher ups or academic advisers (remember, the student-customer is always right).

Not to sound clichéd, but in most cases when a professor passes a student that doesn't deserve it, they are not doing them a favor, they're doing them a disservice. And ASA needs stronger admissions criteria to guarantee that the real students, the ones who really mean it, don't get lumped into a classroom with the guy who only met the two basic admissions requirements (1-check/loan cleared, 2-has a pulse).

The cheating at ASA is an epidemic. Some professors leave the classroom during an exam, for long minutes. Major research essays are routinely little more than copy/pasted Wikipedia entries. Students will cheat in the most simplistic, cartoonishly childish ways--passing notes back and forth, hand signals, whispering loudly, openly gawking at the student's paper next to them--which, frankly, is almost impossible NOT to do, because a typical Composition 101 class is 25 students jammed into half of a room (divided by paper-thin partitions) and they are practically seated in each other's laps due to overcrowding. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that so many students are still unable to graduate, even with these kinds of bare-minimum requirements and environments so conducive to cheating.

I took a comparatively hard stance on cheating. I had a 2 strikes policy in place for exams--if I saw it once, I gave a warning. If I saw it again, I failed them. Now, even this kind of leniency is something I wouldn't have dreamed of at the university I attended--but I didn't even enforce this policy all of the time, because I needed to keep my job. One thing impressed upon me was that the number of students I failed each semester should not be a large number--a for-profit college cannot afford to fail too many student-customers.

A lot of the local students were in their twenties or thirties and had, after some years in retail or elsewhere, decided to pursue higher education in search of a better-paying job. Many had kids, and were belatedly realizing they needed some credentials to qualify for higher-earning positions. What they didn't understand is that an AA or a "professional certificate" does not guarantee much more than 10 dollars an hour--and often, not even that. At ASA, what it does guarantee them is thousands of dollars of debt that will almost certainly grow, as most of them will be unable to pay off the loans (the ones they barely seem to understand the terms of) for years to come, if ever. That ASA's subway advertisements invite potential student-customers to text the word "CAREER" in order to receive a call from a recruiter seems especially galling, for any sort of two-year college.

As a recent class action lawsuit has claimed, "employers look at an ASA diploma as essentially worthless--and even a negative indication of a graduate's ability." I wish I could categorically disagree with that--I'd certainly be able to sleep better--but I can't. It's easy to see how a solitary ASA degree on a resume could almost be a stigma, a badge proclaiming (at worst): "No one else would admit me" or (at best) "I assumed this college was legit--oops."

Again, I must mention: some students ace their 2 years with a 4.0, and move on to the college they deserve (if their credits were transferable, which is certainly not always the case--another roadblock). Some very motivated graduates work hard, get lucky, and move on to solid jobs. It's not out of the question--there is a potential path to success, while narrow and riven with obstacles. But it's not a regular occurrence; there's a reason the hallway televisions have been trumpeting the single ASA football player who made it onto an NFL team for the last 18 months.

The school claims a majority of its students obtain jobs in their field, and brags about its placement statistics and externship programs, but the success stories I heard personally were few and far between. I heard a lot more complaints--that Career Service wouldn't return calls, that jobs weren't forthcoming, that they weren't getting any call-backs after interviews. Many students graduate only to find temporary $10.00 per hour jobs on the ASA "street team" to recruit more suckers, and one has to wonder if possibly these graduates are figured into ASA's employment statistics. Sure, they may be working for the school they attended--but technically, they are employed, at least on a part-time basis.

It may seem obvious to many readers, but a lot of these students don't understand the difference between a degree from ASA and, say, Cornell. To them, it's all just "college." This is certainly not to say they're not smart--but their parents didn't go to college, most of their friends didn't, and they have no conception of the implicit responsibilities and expectations of being a college student. Some simply don't understand why they can't intermittently show up to class, write a few half-assed, un-sourced/unformatted papers, and not get at least a C+. After all, they managed it in high school, and they didn't even have to pay for that!

Most see nothing strange about having to read entire essays and short stories out loud in a Composition 101 classroom, as if in a kindergarten reading group (if a professor doesn't force the students to take turns reading stories and essays, aloud, in class, 90% of the class will not bother--to many, college homework is simply an option, like it was in high school). They don't think it's odd they were enticed to enroll in the school in the same way tourists are convinced to buy a faux Prada handbag, a mix tape, or an elevator ride to the top of the Empire State Building: by a person shouting at strangers on a street corner. And some sad, hopeful souls don't even question why a college would accept them when they are borderline illiterate in both Spanish and English, or can't string together enough coherent sentences to complete a single written paragraph.

I remember the 60 year-old, Romanian shipyard worker who'd suffered a stroke in the past year, and had difficulty speaking in complete sentences. There's no way he should've been admitted into college, but he certainly was eligible for student loans.

I remember the brilliant tri-lingual Middle Eastern cab driver taking care of his elderly mother. He was tired of driving and dispatching, night and day. He was hoping an ASA degree would make the difference in his professional life.

I remember the disillusioned city employee from the Bronx I met in Herald Square, a year after his graduation--he was still picking up trash on the streets in Midtown, still toiling at the same dead-end job he'd worked at for years. Employers didn't seem to care about his new degree, and he wasn't sure how he'd pay off his loans anytime soon.

And I'll never be able to forget the dozens of functionally illiterate housewives and single mothers, who would ask younger students to translate their questions to me in a high level ESL class or even Composition I, not seeming to grasp that this very act proved they shouldn't be in the class (who was rubber-stamping these students out of the ESL program?). They'd stare in terror at the blank computer monitors on lab day. Somehow they had graduated from the ESL program and passed a remedial Freshman Skills course, but they still didn't even know how to turn on a computer. A couple didn't even have email addresses--they had created one once, for a class, they thought, but had written the password down somewhere then lost it--they didn't think they'd need it again. This is the kind of thing I mean when I say the school is predatory--I read articles like this one at Slate, and my biggest surprise is that they could only find one student with a 3rd grade reading level. I can think of a dozen, and that's just last semester.

One thing we know, thanks to the new lawsuit (full text can be found here) alleging ASA violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), is that in 2011 ASA reported a tidy profit of 78 million, a whopping 76 million of which comes from government loans.

So where is this money going? Spoiler: it ain't to the faculty. As mentioned earlier, the standard adjunct rate is 25 dollars an hour, and mine never changed in the nearly two years I worked there. Nearly every adjunct I asked made the same, with a few earning 30. There are both full-time and adjunct professors who have toiled at ASA for years without a raise, and they are too terrified to ask for one (a common joke in the faculty offices is that professors who speak out either get canned or they end up "in a Brighton Beach basement").

There are few-to-zero raises at ASA--not for adjuncts, and hardly ever for full-timers, if the talk in the faculty lounge is to be believed. A professor must be observed several times in order to qualify for a raise, but ASA seems to circumvent this policy by rarely observing anyone more than once or twice. The raises never come because every professor at ASA is expendable, no matter how long they've worked there, what they've accomplished, published, or how many classes they teach per semester: there will always, always be hordes of Education and Sociology majors, or Creative Writing MFA's, willing to teach 6 or 7 classes per week, at $25.00 per hour.

But hey, at least the graduation ceremonies take place at the sparkling new Barclays Center! And there are dozens of state-of-the-art flat-screen TV's strewn about the hallways of the Manhattan campus, tuned 24/7 to the same 15 minute reel of ASA "news" and announcements, mostly consisting of sports updates.

For weeks, the debate raged in the faculty offices as to what the reasoning behind the flat-screen TVs was (our rickety copiers were always breaking down, so the pointless televisions were like giant, flickering, extended middle-fingers to the faculty). The footage never seemed to change: a continuous loop of news about ASA's sports teams, mostly football, but also tennis, lacrosse, etc. Though the video featured a lot of talking heads, the TVs were always on mute--as if someone had bought them on a whim, then belatedly realized that one can't blare televisions all day in the corridors of a "college" outside of active classrooms--but then, couldn't return them... so they just hit the mute button and called it a day.

It isn't as if the students cared about the football team; it just isn't that kind of school, there isn't any "ASA spirit." In two years I never heard a student that wasn't an athlete mention a college team. So who was it for? Why were they there? Why are any of the televisions in the halls? Advertising? And if so, to whom? The only people that see these videos and sports highlights are already students--they're already ASA customers. And yet--the TVs are selling something. They are selling a message to the student-customers: "this is a real college." Look, we have expensive TV's lining the hallways! We are a successful school! Our campus is in Herald Square--that rent isn't cheap! So you know it has to be a good college...right?

Regardless of these expenses and the Herald Square address, there wasn't enough money to provide copy machine paper for the English department, or paid training and orientation--the school isn't made of money, you see, and anyway what's the big idea, using paper in a classroom?

This is a classic, go-to move for ASA. First make an enormous financial expenditure for something ridiculously showy/unnecessary, then cut corners and get stingy on the cheapest items, the very building blocks of education--paper, books, whiteboard markers, properly sized desks, quiet (and appropriately-sized) classrooms. This should underscore exactly how much ASA respects its professors and students, and how much value those in charge place on appearances as opposed to actual education.

I suppose in the beginning I was simply excited and grateful for the income, but there were early warning signs I should have heeded in my brief stint as an ASA adjunct professor. I quickly gleaned from the hallway chitchat that our students could, on occasion, be fairly tough customers. At orientation I asked what I thought was a reasonable question.

"What is the procedure for kicking a student out of class if they are becoming disruptive?" The HR Woman immediately began shaking her head: No.

"First of all, I need you to be much more careful with your language. Let's not say 'kick out' OK?" She blathered on a bit about phrasing, never addressed my very valid question, and moved on to another topic.

I looked around, confused--wait, did this bozo really just give me a bullshit HR redirection?--and got some sympathetic looks from other professors. "I'll tell you how to handle it later," says a smiling adjunct professor in her 40's. "Because that will happen, child."

I never get an official response to my question, because there is no official procedure, and this, I soon learn, is the official procedure. For everything. Vague, shadowy directives filter down from above, and no one seems to know who issued them. Administrators only know these directives are important and must be followed. "What can ya do?" is practically the faculty motto; we should've made t-shirts. With this, ahem, flexible managerial style, if there is ever an issue, the administrators can simply invent the official policy on the spot to fit the situation.

Even the very name of the school--"ASA College"--adheres to this policy. What does it stand for? I can't recall ever seeing the acronym spelled out. Word on the street is that it began as a computer programming course and that it means Advanced Software Analysis, but again, I've never seen it in writing. So there is even potential deniability built into the name. "Why no, I'm not an Advanced Systems Analysis administrator. I work for Aerodynamic Sound Advancements, your Honor. This is all a mistake."

Regardless, however the professor handles any situation: the student shouting profanity at the top of their lungs during a lecture, the disruptive student who refuses to leave the room, the religious student who won't stop proselytizing to the class, or the student who tried to pass off a copy/pasted Wikipedia entry (complete with blue hyperlinks, usually) as a research essay--the professor will have handled it wrong, and against policy; because for ASA, the best policy is to have no policy. And the student-customer is always right (until they demand help finding a job, or file a class action lawsuit--then they're just sore losers).

In one instance, a man swore at an adjunct professor and insulted her teaching abilities. The professor was a kind and fair-minded woman in her 40's, who had probably been working there for a decade. But that kind of seniority is meaningless at ASA. She asked the intimidating, belligerent student to leave class, and finally, he walked out.

He walked straight down to the 4th floor and his academic advisor's office, where he laid out his own version of events. The advisor's response? To return to the class, with the potentially violent student in tow. To interrupt her lesson once again, knocking on the class door and asking to speak with her in the hallway--as if she were the student, or had done a single thing wrong. To demand an explanation for asking the student-customer to leave the class. And before the poor woman could even respond, the student swore at her, loudly, several times.

Just think about that a moment--an academic advisor interrupted a professor's class and brought her out into the hallway expressly to be cussed out by a student, in full view of administration and her colleagues--a student she had, moments earlier, asked to leave the classroom.

When I think of my own days as a college student, the situation is unthinkable. There would have been no discussion--the student would be removed from class, likely expelled. It was an illuminating moment for some professors, and a clear message from our bosses--this is how the administration sees you. You are a relatively small cog in the machinery of ASA. And there will always be another cog willing to work for $25.00 an hour.

"Defeatism masquerading as wisdom" was the prevailing attitude of too many (but not all) of the entrenched faculty members. Almost every cutback, disrespectful directive, or policy change was met with a sad, helpless shrug of the shoulders--the insults come so quickly, one after the other, that professors are quickly numbed. Tiny classrooms jammed with students, less vacation time, no more paid office hours for adjuncts, no more paper (seriously, that happened), no more books (that happened, too)--each new measure is met with a chorus of resigned sighs.

"What can ya do?" Sack up, and put your signature on a paper, for one. To that end, myself and several others attempted to organize a union, but it was like pulling teeth. The fear of my coworkers was palpable, and soon many were afraid to even be seen talking to us at the water cooler. "Keep your head down, don't make waves" was the standard operating procedure. The jokes kept coming about my corpse washing up on the shores of Brighton Beach.

That wasn't by accident, either--there is a culture of fear at work in the halls of ASA. Many professors joke that the school, staffed overwhelmingly with Russians and Ukrainians, is run by ex-KGB officers --"fear will keep you honest." Intimidating emails are always popping up in the ASA email inboxes, making vague, threatening statements about suspensions without pay and job security.

The indifference to my attempts at unionization was frustrating, but I shouldn't judge: I remember exactly how desperate I was for work in 2012. Back then, I was happy to get the adjunct job. Sure, I was tepid about their rather meager hourly rates and the countless hours of unpaid work I would have to put in on lesson plans and grading papers, but I was confident that was just the starting pay, and would go up after a couple semesters. Most off all I just felt a sense of relief, and a satisfaction that I was rejoining the workforce; I was, once again, pulling my weight in society.

Another mitigating factor: I don't have any children. There are no tiny, helpless human beings depending on my paycheck to survive. So I do understand that getting angry, blowing up at administrators, sending out school-wide "Jerry Maguire" emails (I'm getting there) and openly attempting to unionize are all luxuries most of the working parents at ASA simply do not have. So as frustrated as I was with certain coworkers, it's not my place to point fingers, and I can't honestly say how I would've behaved if my situation was different.

In recent years, entire classes of students haven't even received textbooks until week 4 or 5 of the semester. So what is the solution? Professors were asked to simply photocopy class materials--all of them. Entire chapters, hundreds of pages--for every student in the class, which can be as many as 25. Unsurprisingly, a lot of trees gave their lives for this snafu, and our copiers and printers began to break down from constant use. Even though the copier was less than a year old, there was apparently no warranty (one professor suggested the 'new' copiers had "fallen off the back of a truck").

Finally, almost 1/3 into the semester, books arrived for classes. I don't understand why there was ever a delay, but I suspect it had something to do with belatedly obtaining government money to buy the "free" books for the students. At this point, administration began to wonder: why are the ESL offices using so much paper? It apparently never occurred to them that telling professors to print out entire chapters for each student, on a daily basis, might cause an uptick in paper usage.

So how did they solve this problem? By immediately banning paper. Suddenly the janitors were guardians of the paper supply, and if you wanted any you had better know how to speak Russian, or be prepared to fistfight an eerie, aggressive guy named Rasputin*, who doesn't care for Western ideas, like deodorant. If it wasn't so patently idiotic and petty, it would have been funny. I won't bother detailing here how hard not having any fucking paper available makes it to teach a grammar class, or a college algebra class--almost any kind of class, but ask an educator. It's possible--and admirable--to go paperless, but it's also expensive, and something years in the making--not a policy you implement on a Wednesday, halfway through a semester, during midterm reviews.

Hilariously, when I demanded ASA provide faculty with enough paper to run a class, one response from a high-level admin was "don't you care about the environment?" ASA does not even have a recycling program.

"It'll only cost, like 75 dollars, it's not that bad," reasoned one adjunct, looking for a way to salvage his dignity. He was calculating how much he would have to spend to print the final exams for his six classes of students. The poor bastard was so beaten down he was going to go out and spend the equivalent of one entire 1 ½ hour class. And he was justifying that! To him, it seemed reasonable to pay ASA for the privilege of doing his job. That was the mentality they had instilled in him. I don't know if he was so cowed by all the vague threats and intimidating emails, or if he was just an admin plant but I realized this was their secret, ludicrous goal--to make it standard for professors to supply their own paper.

The policy ended almost overnight when I mass-mailed every single ASA email address I could find, airing my grievances about the school's lack of commitment to its students and professors. I sent the message to full time professors, administrators, adjuncts, department heads, and the school president.

Suddenly I was called in for a meeting with the school founder and president, Alex Shchegol. I had never met the man--in fact the only thing I knew about him was that he was the kind of guy who doesn't mind shelling out two grand to put a giant velociraptor in his front yard--but to say a cult of personality exists around Mr. Shchegol is to greatly understate the matter.

Every professor and administrator lives in fear of him. "Shchegol is in the building, this is go-time everybody" is all anyone needs to hear, and every office in the building is scrambling. He enjoys making surprise classroom visits with his entourage and an ever-present, Smithers-esque bespectacled yes-man. It's not unusual for him to burst into a class and give a short, impromptu pep-talk to the students, in what could charitably be described as pretty decent English. He did this once in one of my upper level ESL classes.

"Who was that?" a student asked after he'd left.
"That was the president and founder of the college."
"Yo, I think he needs to be takin' this class."

A powerfully built Russian (or perhaps Ukrainian, I was never certain) immigrant of medium height in his fifties, Shchegol loves to expound on his own legend. Speak with him for more than a few minutes, and you will hear the story: how he came to America with less than a hundred dollars in his pocket, how he built ASA up brick-by-brick with his bare hands from a computer programming tech school to the sprawling, multi-million dollar institution it is today. It's a good story, full of hope and promise, and he's good at telling it.

President Shchegol had no idea who had given the order to stop supplying the professors with paper--in fact, it was all a misunderstanding! It was just a rumor, really. The maintenance staff just got the wrong idea. That wacky Rasputin*! Someone would have to talk to him. The paper would be restored tomorrow.

That was pretty much the only time anyone in upper administration listened to any concerns I had--and I had to scream and jump up and down and email literally everyone in the school directory to get them to take notice. Aggression and threats seemed to be all they understand--sending a polite email requesting a schedule change won't even get you a response, but barging into an office unannounced and slamming your fist on a desk--that's how things get done.

After about two years at ASA I was able to quit. I got a new job at a new school, and realized that together with my freelance projects, I could finally afford to leave. And leave I did. Giving a 1-week notice never felt so good.

Sometimes I felt guilty in my role in the deception. I guess I kept telling myself that I was just trying to pay my rent, and honestly, I was teaching the best classes I could. Even when I was asked to substitute for a Sociology or a Psychology class (subjects I know almost nothing about, have no degrees in, and probably shouldn't be allowed/asked to teach classes on, just sayin'), I tried to cover the material as best as I could, and make lectures interesting--I felt awful for misrepresenting myself to the students, but I needed those substitute hours, desperately.

For those few great students in each class, the ones choosing to take the school and all of its bullshit seriously--I took them seriously in return, and I know a lot of other professors operated the same way. If nothing else I can take solace in the fact that they took some knowledge away from my class, and were able to measurably improve their writing and critical reading skills. But that won't mean much if they walk away from the college with an unhelpful degree and 20k in debt. For all of its faults, it's not even an affordable school--tuition is on the high side, even for NYC, and the higher-ups are constantly making deals to nickel-and-dime students--$100+ for a literature anthology, or $30 for some crummy, mandatory software they will use perhaps ten times in a class.

I'm still nagged by the thought that I took the easy way out. The right thing to do, and far more difficult, would have been to organize. Power is the only thing the upper administration at ASA can grasp, and a lone adjunct has less power there than a custodian. The only way any positive change will ever be effected at the school is if the professors find the will to unionize, but considering I could only ever convince a handful of colleagues to put their names to a petition merely asking for more paper, I don't see that happening anytime soon. Until they are stopped, ASA will keep gobbling up government money in exchange for degrees and certificates of dubious worth, taking advantage of local students, international students and adjuncts alike, while heaping ever more classes and responsibilities onto beleaguered full-timers.

What I learned at ASA also made me wonder to what extent the for-profit college industry is responsible for saddling our nation's students with debt. The way the college has seized on these unsophisticated students and signed them up for loans, it's hard to ignore the parallels with the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the ensuing economic crash. I didn't work in admissions or retention so I have no numbers, but I saw so many students disappear after one or two semesters. Based purely on my personal experience, the dropout rate seems high--but then, with its three semester system, ASA is constantly in the process of enrolling new students, so there will always be more butts to fill the empty seats.

My time spent at ASA did not leave me without hope. I think of my best students--whether from Bolivia, Bhutan or the Bronx--and I'd put them up against students anywhere. I still think for-profit colleges could have a unique opportunity to fill an important role for education in America, and I certainly hope some of them do just that--after all, there are hundreds in New York City, and they can't all be like this one. They're reaching out to a segment of the population that desperately wants higher education, but very often isn't equipped to navigate all of the decisions involved with that. Done differently, perhaps the for-profit model has the potential to become what its defenders claim it is, but right now it's the wild West out there, and nothing demonstrates the need for more oversight and regulation in this area than the cash-grab/shitshow that is ASA. As long as the college can maintain that steady influx of loan money, they will continue to admit/graduate anyone with a pulse--and all of us--professors, students, or simply NYC employers in general--will be worse off for it.

* The name given for the janitor is a pseudonym to protect his privacy.

Update (6:45pm EST, 8/27/2014): ACA College has responded with the following statement, included here in full:

Steven Hirst's opinion in no way reflects the views of the 380 faculty members of ASA College. The ASA Faculty Council, which represents the college's faculty members, is dedicated to ASA's continued success. We are proud of our institution, proud of our students, and proud of our colleagues who range from seasoned professionals to more recent graduates with brilliant potential. We take our responsibilities seriously and are dedicated to educating our student population. At ASA, there is a supportive climate that promotes the free exchange of ideas at all levels of the institution.

Our enthusiasm for the ASA community is bolstered by the significant and positive changes we see taking place all around us. Student support services have greatly expanded, and technology is increasingly a part of the classroom experience to respond to the high-tech environment of the marketplace.

This is not just our view. It is underscored in recently released 2014 Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE). The CCSSE survey, which this year surveyed 430,000 students across the country, is the nationally recognized, independent standard for measuring a two-year college's effectiveness of student engagement - a key indicator of learning and overall quality of the academic experience. In this 2014 survey, ASA scored better than the average of the top-performing colleges in the 2014 CCSSE cohort in three of the five benchmark categories: "Student Effort," "Academic Challenge," and "Support for Learners." ASA also scored above the national average in the remaining two categories: "Active and Collaborative Learning" and "Student-Faculty Interaction." For New York City area participating colleges (with a total of more than 10,000 students) the survey showed ASA was a top performer with significantly higher scores than the average in all five categories.

The success of our students is fundamental to all of us who love the profession of teaching. Seeing the progress our students make every semester is a great reward, personally and professionally. At ASA we are meeting our challenges, working as a team to fulfill the college's mission: "to educate a diverse student population to become responsible professionals."


Devi Rawana, Faculty Council Chairman, and Professor, Business Division

Svetlana Saratchilova, Professor, General Education Department

MD Masud Hasan, Professor, Allied Health Division

Yves Jean-Baptiste, Professor, Allied Health Division

Hari Maharjan, Professor, Computer Technology Division

Paulette Pyle, Professor, Computer technology Division

Shirley E. Bryant, Professor, Business Division

Konstadinos Aleviadis, Professor, Computer Technology Division

*Above signed are members of the ASA College Faculty Advisory Committee