A Second Open Letter to Sen. Tom Harkin

On September 24, 2012, I posted the following letter to Senator Tom Harkin’s Senate Web page.

________________________________________________________________________

Senator Harkin:

As a veteran and taxpayer, I appreciate your desire to have the money used to educate our veterans be used effectively and efficiently. However, the presentation that you authored has issues. I’m trained in statistics and because of that, I could make a laundry list of issues. You are a very busy man so instead of going item for item, please allow me to point out one blatantly wrong slide. You have a slide entitled “For-Profit Colleges Employ Many Recruiters But Few Placement Staff.” From a subjective perspective, to have a slide with a title that indicates an issue with For-Profit Colleges as a group but then indicts a single one is disingenuous and ineffective because your case is that many schools have this problem, yet you showcase only one. It also smacks of a lack of objectivity and personal bias. Even if your chart is accurate, it does not make the point that this is a systemic problem.

Objectively, the slide in incorrect. University of Phoenix, the largest school under the Apollo Group umbrella, has an extremely robust Career Services site that covers the gamut of services from resume writing to career research to interview preparation. The site also lists major employers that Phoenix partners with to help find jobs for its graduates.

Your data was gathered from 2007 to 2010. I started at Phoenix in 2010 and I don’t know what its career placement services were like then. It could be that in 2010, your statement was accurate. However, it is nearly 2013 and it definitely is not accurate.

If I had the 20-30 hours free to write it, I would write a report that shows slide for slide, just how bad this report is. I don’t have the time to write it and anyone as busy as you doesn’t have the time to read it. Please consider making this “update” to your report as a show of good will. I’ll be the first person to thank you for that by making a post to that effect on my blog, andyknaster.com.

Since your Senate Web site has a link to that report on its home page, it appears that this is a report you are proud of and feel the people need to read. Don’t you owe it to your constituents and all of America to be accurate and up-to-date?

This is my second letter to you. I requested a response to the first one and I have not received it. I posted to your Facebook page and got no response. Please respond to this message. This is a very non-partisan issue. In this highly contentious and partisan time, taking action on a non-partisan issue is something I think would resonate well with many Americans.

Respectfully yours,
Andrew Knaster, BA, MA, MCP
University of Phoenix Master of Information Systems student, class of 2013

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Sen. Tom Harkin needs to tell the truth

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) released a report that takes to task for-profit educational institutions such as the University of Phoenix, Capella University, DeVry, Kaplan, and others.  One of his slides states the Apollo Group, the owner of University of Phoenix has no career services or placement staff.

Senator Harkin's incorrect graph about the University of Phoenix's career placement staff

Senator Harkin’s incorrect graph about the University of Phoenix’s career placement staff

Source: http://www.harkin.senate.gov/documents/pdf/4f9ac62292704.pdf

That would be a very serious problem if it was true.  However, as the next picture clearly indicates, Sen. Harkin needs to study the facts a bit more and tell the American people the real truth instead of his truth.

University of Phoenix career services page

University of Phoenix career services page

An open letter to Senator Tom Harkin

Senator Harkin:

I am a three classes away from finishing my Master of Information Systems degree at University of Phoenix. I understand that you have serious doubts about the value of an online education provided by for-profit institutions like the Apollo Group’s University of Phoenix. Please accept this as my personal testimony in regard to the quality of what University of Phoenix provides. First, I want to address the reasons that I am writing this. Then I want to tell the story of many other students, my colleagues, some of whom have become lifelong friends.

I am a sixteen year veteran of the IT analysis profession. When I came to Phoenix, I already had a Bachelor’s in Psychology and Sociology from Rutgers University in Newark. Rutgers is one of the top research universities in the nation. I was made a member of Psi Chi, the National Honors Society for Psychology. I was also in the R.O.T.C program at Seton Hall University. Like Rutgers, Seton Hall is known by many to be a school of excellence. I received a diploma in Military Science from Seton Hall. My education there lead to my first career as an officer in the United States Army. While in the Army, I attended several schools including the Armor Officer Basic Course at Fort Knox, KY, the Chaplain Officer Basic course at Fort Monmouth, NJ, and Nuclear , Chemical, and Biological Warfare training at Ft. Bliss TX. I logged over 1,000 hours on the instructor’s platform and I wrote the training evaluation program that was used to assess the combat readiness of Cavalry scouts. Several years after leaving the Army, I made a career change to being a full-time minister in a very large denomination. During that time, I earned a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies. I finished my studies in 1994 via distance learning that used video tape and textbooks. At the age of 32, I was accepted into the Doctor of Sacred Ministries program at what is now known as Northland International College. I was the youngest member of my class. Although I enjoyed my time in ministry, I realized that I did not have the temperament to be as effective a minister as I needed to be. Because I was a computer help desk lead for the three years I was getting my first Master’s, I was able to go into the technology field. My first job after being in the ministry was as a software instructor for a nationwide chain of computer stores owned by a stalwart of American business, The Tandy Corporation. Within two months of taking that job, I doubled my classroom capacity, added two part-time instructors, and had the second most successful training operation in the entire company. Tandy, the parent of Radio Shack, decided to close down the chain eight months after I was hired. In 1996, I became an applications analyst. The word “analyst” has been in my job title for most of the last 16 years.

If you examine the previous paragraph, you will not see any technology education. Until recently, that was not much of an issue. I have a Master’s, lots of experience, I have trained myself to program in several languages, and I am a Microsoft Certified Professional. I was able to get jobs that required someone with an IT Master’s degree because a line in the qualifications section of job postings used to say, “Has a Master’s degree in a technology field or commensurate experience.” Today, jobs such as the one I currently hold have dropped the “commensurate experience” from the qualifications. I found that out the hard way in 2010. I was a contractor on assignment to the Bureau of the Census. I wrote the requirements for the single largest operation in the 2010 Census. The application that was developed from those requirements impacted 49 million American homes. Once the Census was over, like most contractors, so was my job. It was then that I faced something I had only faced once in my life, unemployment. Apart from two weeks of unemployment while I was still in college, I have always been employed. I wasn’t concerned about finding a new position. After all, I thought that I was bringing so much to the table, that it would be only a matter of days until I found another job. That’s when I noticed the “commensurate experience” phrase dropped out of job descriptions. It took me seven weeks to find a new job. I was out of money and totally frustrated because all I had worked for counted for nothing to most employers because I didn’t have an IT degree. Within days of getting my new job, I enrolled in the Master of Information Systems program at Phoenix.

You might wonder why I have gone through this litany of education and experience. There is a simple reason. I am about to give you my testimony of what the University of Phoenix means to me. I am sure that you receive many letters from people that give you their opinions, qualified or not.  I think it is important to know when I speak of the quality of education, I speak from significant experience. When I speak of the modern technology workplace, I know first-hand what it is like. When I speak about the value of education, remember that I trained our soldiers in skills that meant something far more important than how to be profitable. I taught them how to avoid being killed and how to defeat the enemies of our great nation. My former unit, the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment, was the first over the line during Operation Desert Storm in 1990. I did not worry for them because I was only one of an untold number of men and women who, regardless of formal education, made teaching them to succeed in the most hazardous work environment on Earth, the modern battlefield, their purpose in life. I have degrees from ground-based institutions and I had my first distance learning experience in 1994.

I have a very serious question to ask.  Did you or any member of the committee that produced the disparaging report on for-profit online learning institutions even audit an online class?  I know that with the massive amount of work involved in running our country’s business, such things are not always possible.  I would like to make you an offer with the hope that it might help you to reconsider your position.  I know the value of an online education. I am staking my career on it. I carry a 4.0 GPA average at Phoenix that I have worked extremely hard for. Please let me present you with one of the papers I’ve written while at Phoenix.  I live in Baltimore, MD, just an hour north of The Capitol. If you like, I’ll hand-deliver the paper to you.  While I’m there, feel free to invite me to stand on the floor of the Senate so that you and your colleagues can ask me about my education.  If you like, find a GS-15 Functional Analyst (that is the equivalent to the job I hold) and have him or her quiz me on business and systems analysis.  I’m willing to put a lot on the line.  I make my living as a government contractor.  If I come across as anything less than competent, I will be jeopardizing my own career.  I stand nothing to gain by this.  I’ll be done with Phoenix in six months.  I want to make sure that Phoenix and schools like it are available after you and I are not around to discuss this.  I want my kids and grandkids to have the same options I have now.

Allow me to share a University of Phoenix story that took place quite recently. I was fortunate to have an unusual amount of experience in the class that I just completed. That comes through in the answers to the discussion questions that each student is required to submit at least twice a day, four days per week. (As an aside, I’ve not experienced a ground-based program that has such a requirement. My first class at Rutgers University had over 400 students. Nobody was required to raise their hands, let alone make what Phoenix calls “a substantive contribution.”) One of my classmates asked why I didn’t just test out of the class. Apart from the fact that such a thing isn’t done in my program, I had the following answer for him:

I have been in this business for a lot of years and I know a lot of things but I am self-taught. The inherent danger of being self-taught is that you teach yourself what you need to know, so by default you don’t know what you don’t know. That results in knowledge with holes in it. I have never had a class here where I didn’t discover at least one hole in my knowledge. When I start my teaching career, I owe it to my students to be as free as possible from holes in my knowledge because I can’t teach them about things I know nothing of.

You see, I have one more career change ahead. For most of my adult life, I have wanted to teach professionally. It was shortly after I started at Phoenix that I finally decided I would leave my career in IT and teach IT to distance learners full time. I have already been accepted into the post-graduate program of Liberty University in Virginia. Liberty has a fully-accredited online education program as well as a fully-accredited ground-based program. In case you are wondering why I am not getting my Doctorate at Phoenix, it is because the Liberty is faith-based and I want to have the Christian worldview of Liberty impact me in a way that a secular university cannot.

If you think that a quality education can only come through a ground-based education, please consider the following. By the time I complete my Doctor of Education degree at Liberty, I will have attended the school both online and on the ground. I do not anticipate learning less while at home than I will on the ground. Bricks and mortar are not key ingredients in getting a world-class education. If they were, then I guess Sal Khan didn’t get the message because he educates almost as many people as Phoenix.  If you aren’t familiar with Sal, I’d highly recommend that you read up on him.  Sal has the benefit of being underwritten by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  I want to do what Sal is doing.  To do that, I need companies like the Apollo Group to “underwrite” my efforts.  I need a virtual platform to stand on.  The Apollo Group, by providing the service of the University of Phoenix, gives me that platform.

If bricks and mortar are your thing, then before you discount Phoenix because its students can get degrees online, please remember that the University has over 200 ground-based schools, including three within driving distance of my home, that I may attend any time I want to. I have physical limitations that make such a thing extremely difficult. Fortunately, the only wall between me and the University of Phoenix is a firewall. There is something else you should be aware of. American institutions like Harvard and American University in D.C. have online programs now. So does my Alma Mater, Rutgers University. Those three schools have been teaching people for a combined total of 740 years. I think it is safe to say that they know a lot about education. Have they made mistakes in offering online learning?

That’s my story. Allow me to share the story of another group of University of Phoenix students, those who are depending on their degree to help them make a change in their lives. As much as I struggled to find a job during my seven weeks of unemployment, I could have easily had a job in the high five-figures instead of the six-figures I was accustomed to. The folks I’m talking about have no hope of a future without an advanced degree. As part of giving back to the school, I volunteer my time to mentor my classmates that are struggling with the material. These folks fall into roughly three categories. The first are students with a native tongue other than English. They have come here from all over the world. I remember of couple of Serbian students who lived in danger every day. During DBM/502 (a database management course), I worked with a man who came here from Serbia. The gentleman was very intelligent but was struggling with grasping some concepts because English doesn’t always translate well, especially technical terms. My facilitator let me take time with him so I could explain some of the principles he wasn’t catching by presenting him with several analogies. He got it and finished the class. Without Phoenix and other high-quality online institutions, this man’s American dream would be limited to jobs that paid far less than those he had the ability to hold. He has a wife and three children along with a full-time job. No ground-based program in this country would have worked for him.

The second group of people are single moms with children at home. Some of them had not worked outside of the home for years while others worked in technical jobs but had hit the limit of what jobs they could get. These women are like lionesses watching over their cubs. They sacrifice to provide for them as well as they can. I remember spending hours tutoring and counseling with a single mom from California. Her husband left her with no support and three kids. She was a nurse but like a lot of tech-savvy non-IT people, she was the one that people went to for solutions to their computer problems because the help desk was backed up or because it was three AM and while the help desk is sleeping, the nurses are working. She tried getting tech jobs but she found out very quickly that being tech-savvy didn’t qualify her for jobs, even if she knew how to do them. Where and when is that woman going to get the degree she needs?

I remember working with another single mom that had great grades but she was struggling with an important concept in the class we took together. She wasn’t available to work with me until later in the evening because she worked all day and had to put her kids to bed after spending some time with them. I set up a Web conference with her and we worked through that tough spot for almost six hours. After that, she was rock-solid for the rest of the class. I guess I am particularly sympathetic to their plight because I was raised in the 1960’s by a single mom. In those days, being a single mom was not commonplace like it is today. She worked very hard and eventually became the vice-president of a company.

Being a distinguished veteran yourself, I think you’ll share my feelings about the group that is closest of all to me.  These are the veterans that never quite made the transition from the military to the civilian world. I was fortunate to make the transition. When I was in the Army, I had an additional duty that required me to learn office automation. Even with that skill, it was hard for me to find a job. I was a Cavalryman in one of three Armored Cavalry Regiments in the Army. My Regiment’s mission was to conduct reconnaissance, find the enemy, engage with them, start killing them, and then draw them toward the heavy armored units to finish the job. There is not a lot of a call for those skills in the civilian world. I was two days away from running out of money when I finally got a job offer for a position that paid $20,000 less than I made as an Army officer.

At Phoenix, I’ve worked with many vets but let me tell you the story about one of our patriots that I worked with recently. In the University of Phoenix, unlike ground-based schools, we are required to share a biography with the class before getting started. Let’s call the vet I’m about to talk about Bill. Bill’s biography showed a man full of frustration and anger because after eight years in the military, he was never able to get the sort of job he needed to take care of his family, a wife and eight children. The class facilitator treats Bill with exceptional grace but there is only so much he can do because he is, as are most of the facilitators, a full-time IT professional (something you do not find in traditional universities). Bill has made it clear to the class that he knows technology but without this degree, he’s just not going to make it in the world. Bill, like so many others, has had low-end tech jobs, but because he does not have the appropriate degree, he has stagnated. As a former Army chaplain with some amount of pastoral counseling experience, I feel confident in saying that he is depressed and possibly bordering on despondency. For a vet, despondency can be fatal. In the 90 or so minutes that it took to write this, one of our veterans has taken his or her own life. 18 veterans per day die this way. More veterans have died this way in the last 12 months than during the entire conflict in Iraq. I asked the facilitator if it was acceptable for me to work with Bill on the side. He most gladly gave me permission. Bill was a hard case. After two days of working with him, I was telling my wife about him and I broke down crying because I wasn’t sure if I could get through. She encouraged me to stay with him. After all, I hope to be a full-time educator in a few years and there are a lot of hard cases out there. The next few days weren’t very different but after another attempt at getting him to understand a concept that he wasn’t getting, he made a post to our team’s discussion forum. There were three words in that post that should be carved in stone as a testimony of what the University of Phoenix and other quality online institutions can do in the lives of their students. The words were “I got it.”

You made a very successful transition from the military to the civilian world.  From what I read, I understand that you are a gifted photo-journalist.  However, distinguished military service and a gift for art do not necessarily a senator make.  I can only assume that you pursued your J.D. to prepare you for your current career.  Vets need a variety of educational options.  Schools like University of Phoenix provide a vital avenue to getting the education many need to make the sort of transition you and I did.

Education is the key to breaking down so many barriers in our country. Even today, we discriminate against people because of their color, their gender, their sexuality, and particularly their levels of education. Online learning is a battering-ram that breaks down those barriers. I am so committed to it that when I walk the platform as Dr. Knaster instead of Mr. Knaster, I’m quitting my job and teaching Bill, the single moms, the former refugees, and anyone else that wants to live out the American dream by working hard and earning a degree. Please do not mitigate against my dream or the dreams of the hundreds of thousands of American distance learners in this country and around the world. Some people’s lives depend on it.

Thank you for your time.

Andrew G. Knaster, BA, MA, MCP
Baltimore, MD

When is an action of the U.S. government constitutional?

One of the more common dialogs I hear between Ron Paul and members of the press goes like this:

Journalist: Representative Paul, what do you think about <<insert a government action here>>.

Ron Paul: Well…when I take out my copy of the Constitution, I look at the powers granted to Congress by the people as listed in Article One, Section Eight, and if I don’t see it there I don’t think much about it because I’m not allowed to do it.

You can read the entirety of Article One, Section Eight in three minutes.  To guarantee that all bills considered by, and all laws enacted by Congress are constitutional, I think the following process should be followed:

  1. At the opening of all sessions of Congress, the House Parliamentarian shall read Article One, Section Eight to the House and the Senate Parliamentarian shall do likewise for the Senate.
  2. When a Bill is announced, the Parliamentarian shall announce whether or not the Congress has been granted the power to make legislation in that area.  If the power has not been granted under Article One, Section Eight, the Parliamentarian shall inform the author or authors of the bill that the rules governing Congress do not permit them to proceed.  At that point, if any member of congress attempts to promote that bill, he or she shall be escorted out of the building by the Sergeant of Arms and placed in stocks for four hours.
  3. A group of volunteers shall be stationed outside of the House or Senate buildings armed with eggs and tomatoes donated by the public.  They shall, from a distance of nine yards, pelt the public servant in the stocks with the eggs and tomatoes.
  4.  As an added bonus, people wishing to volunteer for this duty must buy a $100 dollar lottery ticket for a chance at the privilege of enforcing the Constitution.  When Congress is in session, 25 lucky Americans will be able to stand watch outside of each houses for a four-hour shift with shifts rotating at midday.  That will pay off the national debt in about 18 months.

Here is Article One, Section Eight:

  • The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
  • To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;
  • To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;
  • To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;
  • To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;
  • To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;
  • To establish Post Offices and post Roads;
  • To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;
  • To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;
  • To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;
  • To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
  • To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
  • To provide and maintain a Navy;
  • To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;
  • To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
  • To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
  • To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;–And
  • To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof    

So why is this so freaking complicated?