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Theatre of the Absurd: Former For-Profit College Advisor Takes His Story of Corruption to the Stage

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The poster for Aaron Calafato's play, "For Profit."

When Aaron Calafato took a job as an admissions advisor at a small for-profit university in northern Ohio, it was supposed to be temporary.

Fresh out of conservatory acting training in New York City, Calafato and his wife—who lost her job in the recession—moved back to Calafato’s hometown of Cleveland to find jobs. Just for a little while, they told themselves, until they could get back on their feet.

Solo stage performance wasn’t going to pay the bills yet, but if Calafato had to take a day job, he wanted it to be socially or creatively engaging.

“I wanted to work as a teaching artist with at-risk youth,” Calafato said in an interview with Campus Progress. “And so I said, let me go work for a school. I was really naïve. … I didn’t know the difference between for-profit and not for profit.”

Now Calafato knows the difference all too well—and he wants to make sure the rest of the world does, too.

So he’s now touring his one-man, multi-character show based on his “advising” experience. Calafato said he hopes the show, called For Profit, can spark discussion about the issue of for-profit colleges and their predatory practices.

Here’s a sneak preview of the show from a recent live performance:

When Calafato first accepted the for-profit job and showed up for training, he said it was like something out of Glengarry Glen Ross—basically advising trainees to “ABC: Always Be Closing.”

“I was like, wait, aren’t we admissions advisors?” Calafato, 28, asked. “Because I remember in high school and college, it was like, ‘Let’s sit down and talk about your life.’ But now I was integrated into this incredibly hyper-profit, predatory culture.”

Calafato felt trapped: He and his wife together held about $150,000 in personal student debt. In order to make those high payments, which he’d already been forced to defer once, Calafato had to help put other people deep in debt, too.

Often, he said, those people were underprivileged and poorly informed—some were even illiterate or recovering from drug addiction. But it didn’t matter to the school, which demanded that Calafato just focus on one thing: Always Be Closing.

“These degrees were half the value and three times the money,” Calafato said. “And people were not able to find work.”

For-profit colleges have faced growing scrutiny in recent years as revelations about their often-troubling practices have come to light. Several members of Congress have called for increased regulation of the industry, which fought back with intense lobbying efforts. Last year, the Department of Education announced a “gainful employment rule,” to ensure students could find work and manage debt.

(Screw U: How For-Profit Colleges are Scamming Students and Taxpayers)

Then, Calafato started writing the play. To help keep himself sane and also revive his creative life, Calafato said he’d run out to his car during lunch to scribble down the crazy thing he just witnessed. Throughout the 75-minute show, Calafato plays a range of characters: from top officials at For Profit University, to an admissions rep named Aaron, to prospective students.

When he resolved to leave the for-profit industry for good, he “switched up and started performing ethically” on the job. And once he started advising students based on his own conscience, it wasn’t long before he got fired.

Calafato prefers not to say which school he worked for (he does note that it’s not “one of the big guys,” like the University of Phoenix or Kaplan University). As he has become more involved in the fight against these predatory methods and talked to more people, he’s found that others from different schools have similar stories.

Luckily, his wife has found a new job and Calafato’s play has started getting produced and gaining more media attention. He’s still running a crowd-funding site to offset the costs of his upcoming 18-month tour (many venues are still in the works), and he plans to keep the ticket prices low so people aren’t shut out.

“This play gave me my life back as an artist,” he said. “I can take something that’s incredibly relevant, incredibly real, and create something in the American theatre to instigate conversation about it.”

Calafato has performed For Profit in several locations, including New York, Cleveland, and at Wooster College recently. Upcoming performances include a one-day event on May 11 in Washington, DC, and a run in Dayton, Ohio (in conjunction with Occupy Dayton).

Emily Crockett is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @emilycrockett.

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