The Morality of a For-Profit College, in One Act

Daniel Williams

Aaron Calafato appears in the one-man show he wrote called "For-Profit," based on his experiences as an admissions counselor at a for-profit college.
April 03, 2012

Months into his job as an admissions counselor at a for-profit college somewhere in the Midwest, Aaron Calafato began to grow increasingly conflicted. Responding to the college's pressure, he says, he was signing up poorly prepared students for expensive degree programs that would leave them heavily in debt, all so he could make sure he himself had money he needed to keep paying off his own student loans.

"I couldn't sleep at night," he says. He worried for the guy to whom he was "peddling a degree for $28,000 in criminal justice and he doesn't need it." He questioned the morality of a company that would entrench itself into a struggling neighborhood and take advantage of its residents, and he wrestled with his own culpability in the process.

Now in a new one-man play called For Profit that Mr. Calafato wrote and performs, the character of "Aaron," an admissions counselor at For Profit University, wrestles with some of those same moral questions. They include one that Mr. Calafato finds so central to American society right now: "How far will you go for your own economic security?"

An actor by training, Mr. Calafato, 28, says the 75-minute production—which has already been staged in venues in New York City and in the Cleveland area, with future stagings in the works for Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C.—is his attempt to translate his yearlong experience through the medium he knows best.

The play blends theatrical techniques of storytelling and acting, in the tradition of one of his artistic heroes, the late monologist Spalding Gray. "This is not some guy on a rant," he says of his play.

'A Piece of Theater'

In For Profit, Mr. Calafato also portrays nearly a dozen other characters, including "The President" of the college; "The Boss," who supervises the admissions counselors; "The Regional Director," who trains them, a character right out of the boiler room of Glengarry Glen Ross; and students named Javier and T.J.

Set on a bare stage, the play's only props are a chair, a cordless phone, and a hat for one of the characters.

"It's not a piece of journalism," Mr. Calafato says by telephone, having just returned to Ohio from the play's six-show run at the Seeing Place Theater in Manhattan. "It's a piece of theater based on a true story."

The elements of truth are particularly strong, he says, in the case of a scene with the trainer. It was based on the "boot camp" where he and his fellow counselors were sent to learn enrollment techniques. The Regional Director has a six-minute monologue, says Mr. Calafato, "so you get to hear his rhetoric."

In some versions of the play, he also inserts a scene like the real-life one he experienced, when he and fellow admissions reps were asked to parcel up care packages of candy and popcorn as a gift to service members overseas. "But we sent it with brochures that said 'Hey, come to our school,'" says Mr. Calafato.

Though the issues are serious, he says the play is drawing laughs, particularly a scene where the college decides that just maybe it could improve its internal culture if the admissions reps no longer referred to their prospective students as "leads" but as "students." In the play "Aaron" muses, "Wait a second, shouldn't we have been calling them students from the beginning?" (In real life, at about the same time, the main trade association for the for-profit college industry was quietly promoting an effort called "Project Rose" to encourage its member colleges to shift away from terms like "leads" and "recruiters.")

For personal and legal reasons, Mr. Calafato has not revealed the name of the college where he worked, but he says "it was not one of the big guys" in the for-profit college industry.

He's also mindful of the potential for skepticism about the message of his play in light of recent reports about fabrications in The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a theatrical monologue about working conditions at plants in China making products for Apple. That playwright, Mike Daisey, was an artist "I looked up to," says Mr. Calafato. But he doesn't believe Mr. Daisey's mistakes detract from the power of a play, and of his play, to inform an audience. Stimulating discussion is "the artist's responsibility," he says.

A Job to Pay the Bills

Mr. Calafato says he really didn't go into the admissions job with any agenda. A 2005 graduate of Bowling Green State University, he and his wife, a social worker, had been living near New York City for five years, but when she lost her job, they moved back to Ohio, where housing was more affordable.

"I took it seriously," he says. "I felt the job of admissions adviser could be positive." He even had health insurance, which, for an actor, he says, was "cool." Some of the ill-prepared students he was asked to enroll concerned him, but "in your head, you're going, 'Pay my bills or worry about this guy?'"

For Mr. Calafato, those bills included about $1,500 a month for his and his wife's student-loan payments, a burden that has recently also drawn him into the "Occupy Student Debt" movement. He's produced a few YouTube videos on the subject.

But the longer he worked for the company and saw the kind of applicants he and his colleagues were being pushed to enroll with big student loans—single mothers, recovering addicts, and others who had just barely earned their GED's or could barely read—he says his moral dilemma drove him to an inevitable conclusion. The stories of some of his students, which are reflected in the play, also weighed on him.

He decided, "I'm just going to create art with this and use the theater as a social tool," he says.

During the last few months at his job, which ended about a year ago, he would often leave his office at lunch and sit in his car in the parking lot, jotting notes and writing out dialogue.

While he insists he is "not a crusader against for-profits" and views the play as "my forum for telling a story," Mr. Calafato says he does hope the play provokes audiences to consider moral questions. "Profit is great," he says. But "I'm trying to talk about a message: For-profit at what cost? Where is the line? Do we sacrifice one generation of students? Do we sacrifice the credibility of universities?"

And while the play is focused on for-profit colleges, Mr. Calafato says he hopes it gets audiences thinking about the broader challenges the country faces as debt-laden students from all sorts of colleges struggle to find jobs. "You cannot deny that the trillion in student-loan debt is adding to the stagnation of the economy," he says.

Mr. Calafato is now seeking grants and pursuing private fund raising through the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo to help finance an initial 18-month run for the play. He hopes to stage it at small theaters and alternative venues that would be affordable to students and young college graduates, and in places where "it's not just sympathetic audiences saying, Bravo." He hopes colleges will bring it in, too. (A staging is likely this month in conjunction with an arts festival at the College of Wooster.) The play has also attracted interest from a member of Congress.

For Profit audiences will decide for themselves what they think of "Aaron." As for the character's creator, Mr. Calafato says he doesn't see himself as any kind of hero. Toward the end of his tenure at the college, he started doing more to help students line up the outside social services they might need before enrolling in college, even if that meant missing his enrollment goals. "My numbers fell and I got paid less, and that led to me being let go," he says.

"I didn't have the courage to say, I quit," he notes, but doing "the right thing for the last three months ended up in getting me fired."