Joseph Zito has a restless mind that bubbles with ideas, and not always conventional ones.
While he agrees with many policymakers who are calling for a reform of for-profit post-secondary schools, citing concerns about program quality and student outcomes, Zito urges caution when the reforms involve shutting the institutions down.
Poor and working-class students, who comprise the majority of the for-profit career colleges’ enrollment, would be the ones who suffer most should these schools close their doors, said Zito, who graduated this month with a doctorate in executive leadership from the Graduate School of Education (GSE).
“Many of these students have been marginalized in their secondary education because of culture and because of language,” he said. As a result, they often find it difficult to gain college admittance, and, if admitted, they struggle with the course work. “When I interviewed these kids, they said they left community colleges where they kept failing because they didn’t receive the personal, individualized counseling, training, and remedial programs that these (for-profit) schools provide.”
Zito’s dissertation, “Career College Leaders: Meeting the Challenges of Student Graduation and Gainful Employment,” was based on a qualitative study of the for-profit college industry. As someone who also taught at a for-profit college, he says he saw firsthand their value—students who couldn’t make it through public community colleges “are able to succeed in career colleges that offer them more personalized, one-on-one educational and emotional support.”
A former high school teacher and administrator, Zito’s concern for students drove him to finish his Fordham doctorate. As a field specialist with GSE, he now imparts his 30 years of experience to young high school teachers. He spends a good deal of time shuttling from one New York City public school to the next to observe and mentor GSE graduate students.
Zito said Fordham College at Rose Hill gave him the philosophical foundation that allowed him to appreciate his students in a caring and attentive manner. He studied journalism at Fordham and never became a reporter, but still found the education invaluable.
“Studying journalism taught me to focus on what’s important and to align priorities,” he said.
That kind of focus took Zito through two careers (he also co-owned a travel agency), his dissertation, and more recently, a battle with colorectal cancer. He was diagnosed in 2009 and continued on with his studies through radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy.
“I said, ‘This cancer is not going to define my life. I’m going to go on and do something that’s meaningful,’” he recalled.
Like many older students, Zito always wanted to continue on with his education but family responsibilities intervened. He credited the cancer with “kicking me in the right direction,” adding that he never missed a day of class. No one but his family knew of the diagnosis.
“I kept it a secret. I didn’t want anyone to accommodate me,” he said.
That’s not to say that Zito wasn’t challenged: There were times when he thought he couldn’t face the work in his home office, he said.
“I would say, ‘I just can’t do it,’ and my wife would say, ‘You’re doing it; just get in there and get busy,’” he said. “And I’d go in and get busy.”
Even though Zito hasn’t returned to his home office to address the mess of papers since completing his defense, he has begun to contemplate his next step. He said it’s time for proprietary schools to share best practices which have led to success in their graduates finding gainful employment.
“I’d like to work towards that end,” he said. “The for-profit career colleges and the government need to form partnerships to fix the problem.
“Just closing the schools is not an option.”
As the debate heats up, it seems clear that Zito will be ready to enter the fray.
“That’s another thing I learned at Fordham: Once you’ve committed to something, you follow through and give it your all—and not in a half-baked way.”