Anyone following my recent exploits with Strayer University might be amused by the following image. My friend and colleague Frank Short came up with a new version of their envelope — one that takes into consideration the canine demographic:
You may recall that I recently posted a bit of information about Strayer University’s efforts at getting my dog, Pete, to apply to one of their degree programs. You may also recall that in addition to being a dog, one other obstacle standing between Pete and his lifelong dream of earning a degree is that his life turned out not to be long enough to see his dream come true. Sadly, he passed away a little over a year ago.
But now the saga has another twist:
This weekend, my wife and I had the privilege of attending my cousin’s wedding. The bride (my cousin) was glowing, the groom was a charming gentleman, everyone had a lot of fun, and it was a great opportunity for two families who, for the most part, had never met to get to know each other. And get to know each other we did over the course of a lot of eating, drinking, and dancing (or something quite like it).
After the reception, the party continued at the hotel bar where I met the uncle of the groom. He mentioned that he worked at a university in the Washington DC area. As an educator myself, I was curious to hear more, so I asked which university.
The answer: Strayer.
On top of that, he said that he works in the Office of Admissions.
I paused for a moment, wondering if I should mention Pete.
I mentioned Pete.
“You know,” I said. “My dog got a letter from Strayer a few weeks ago asking him to apply.”
“That happens sometimes,” the man said.
“He died about a year ago,” I said.
The man nodded and said his office got a lot of phone calls from people with similar complaints — letters going to elderly relatives in nursing homes, for example, asking if they’d be interested in furthering their careers by going to Strayer.
I asked why that happened.
The problem, he said, was that Strayer works with an outside marketing firm to reach out to potential students. It was the firm, in other words, and not Strayer’s Office of Admissions who extended an invitation to Pete to apply to one of the university’s degree programs.
So it seems I owe the Strayer University Office of Admissions an apology.
Moreover, the gentleman I spoke to was a very nice guy, and it turned out that we have a lot of the same concerns when it comes to higher education. We’re both distressed by the decline in reading and writing skills we see among incoming freshmen, and we both worry a lot about retention rates among matriculating students. In other words, we really want to see students who apply and are accepted into degree programs carry through with their course of study all the way to graduation.
And there it was: two families coming together and two distinct approaches to education finding some degree of accord, both on the same day.
In the end, I suppose, we all have more in common than we tend to think.
This evening, I came home to find a curious piece of mail addressed to my dog, Pete. It was a letter from Strayer University, a private for-profit institution of higher learning. The letter informed Pete that drive and ambition like his “can’t be taught” and that Strayer’s degree programs cover everything else. In case you think I’m making this up, here’s the envelope:*
And here’s the back of the envelope:
And here’s a picture of Pete:
On the surface, of course, I can see why Strayer University might have gotten confused when they sent this letter to my dog. Pete, as you’ll notice, is wearing glasses in this picture. Likewise, the gentleman pictured on the envelope is also wearing glasses. Additionally, and perhaps more to the point, Pete was, at one time, a stray. In this respect, it would make perfect sense for Strayer to seek him out.
Two factors, however, complicate this situation. First, as noted above and as the attached photograph makes clear, Pete is a dog. Second, and sadly, Pete has been in doggy heaven for a little over a year.
Just so I’m clear, let me explain what’s going on in plain English: Strayer University is actively trying to woo a dead dog. Again: Strayer University wants my dead dog to apply to their degree program.
On a more serious note, this letter reveals the lie at the heart of Strayer’s latest push for more students. Clearly, the language of this correspondence is meant to suggest that Strayer has targeted individuals who have a track record of being ambitious. More significantly, the letter begins, “Dear Pete, As someone who has already earned a bachelor’s degree,** you understand how critical a quality education is to improving your career potential.”
The intended message is clear: Strayer wants potential applicants not only to feel special, but also to feel as if Strayer has done their homework. We’re getting in touch with you, the letter seems to say, because we’ve heard good things about you. You are special to us. You are the kind of student we want. There is, in fact, something about you that separates you from everyone else, and it’s the fact that you have ambition.
Needless to say, the fact that this letter was sent to a dead dog belies the basic message of the letter. Pete, after all, was never especially ambitious, even for a dog. Now that he’s no longer with us, his ambition, sadly, has dropped to zero — which means that Strayer either has a seriously skewed definition of words like “driven” and “ambition,” or they’ll take tuition money from anybody who has a pulse. Or doesn’t have a pulse. Or isn’t actually human.
All of this really makes me worry about the future of higher education. It also makes me worry about the lengths that institutions — especially the for-profit variety — will go to to fill their coffers. While I’m sure (which is to say I hope) that Pete wouldn’t get through the application process on account of the fact that he’s a) dead and b) a dog, I have to wonder how rigorous Strayer’s standards are if its admissions officers can’t distinguish between humans and dogs or the living and the dead.
I can only conclude that what matters in the end to such institutions is not education but the bottom line.
*My best guess is that Strayer bought my dog’s “contact information” from a nonprofit organization. When we put Pete to sleep, our vet informed us that she had made a donation in his name to an animal shelter. Though I never thought of him as “Pete Schuster,” I suppose it’s not too big of a leap to assume that the donation was made with my last name attached to Pete’s. The shelter probably sold its list of donors so they could make ends meet, and Strayer probably got a hold of the list somewhere down the line. Again, this is only a guess.
** Pete did not earn a bachelor’s degree.