So it looks like the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs is investigating my old Steno School. Hm.
Honestly, I doubt it's any better or worse than most for-profit steno schools. I had a pretty good experience there, all told. The teachers were all actual stenographers, they were all pretty nice (even if the dictation they read us was as dry as lunar cheesedust), and nothing I learned there was actively wrong; it just wasn't particularly relevant to my chosen career. Possibly I would have gotten more out of it if I had wanted to be an actual court reporter, but virtually everything I needed to know about captioning for deaf and hard of hearing clients I had to teach myself. The main benefit NYCI gave me was in the speed testing process, a weekly metric they administered to tell me how quickly I was advancing, plus a financial sting in the form of trimesterly tuition payments, which motivated me to practice more and graduate faster. When you look at it that way, it's not unlike Beeminder, my favorite anti-akrasia device. I was lucky enough to get grants from the State of New York for my first year there, and paid for the other six months with a combination of cash and loans. I also had a job at the time (offline transcriptionist for a TV captioning company) that allowed me to pay rent and go to school while practicing steno 40 hours a week on the clock. I paid off the last of my steno school loans, along with the much more substantial loans from my undergrad degree, in January 2015. Steno has been a seriously good deal for me financially, and I'm not sure that I would have been as motivated to work as hard as I did if I hadn't paid any money at all and had no objective way to measure my progress. If you advance through speeds quickly, like I did, steno school can be a tedious but relatively painless avenue to a profitable, pleasurable, and endlessly challenging career. I'm a bit resentful that they made me go through six months of padded-out and puffed-up theory classes before they let us start taking speed tests, but otherwise I have no regrets.
I was one of the lucky ones. The problem is this: If you don't advance through speed tests quickly, these schools can keep you in limbo for years and finally graduate you in cataclysmic amounts of debt, or even worse -- which is what happens to the overwhelming majority of students, estimated at 85% or more by most accounts -- it can sell you a machine and software for thousands of dollars, squeeze tuition from you until you're the proverbial bloodless stone, then kick you out with absolutely nothing lucrative to show for it. This is bad. But it's certainly not just found at NYCI. Virtually every steno school operates on this model.
The fact is that back in the day, if you washed out from court reporting school, you at least had some shorthand skills you could use to take dictation as a secretary. The School for Stenotype Exclusively, later Stenotype Academy, and much later The New York Career Institute, was founded on this model. It didn't have any admissions requirements, and its tuition was relatively modest. Those that couldn't hack it had their mid-range clerical skills to fall back on, and those that could went on to work in courtrooms and deposition rooms. I doubt that they were graduating any more students then, proportionately speaking, than they are now, but the stakes for failure now are so much higher. You can easily lose tens of thousands of dollars while churning away for a 225 WPM speed certificate that might never be yours -- whether because you don't have the baseline literacy skills to produce a properly spelled and punctuated transcript, because your motor reflexes aren't fast enough, because your fingers aren't coordinated enough, because you didn't have time to practice, or any of a dozen other reasons. And if you don't get that certificate, there are no alternative careers waiting for you. People don't dictate to secretaries anymore. Bosses do their own typing, so typing skills on their own just don't pay the bills like they used to.
Steno schools that operated with nothing but the public good in mind would try to weed out the obvious never-happens and keep only the best possible prospects -- piano virtuosos, video game whiz kids, qwerty champs, and grammar mavens -- to train up into stenographers. But the National Court Reporters Association tried something like that a few years ago. They hand-picked 15 students, all with bachelor's degrees, who went through a rigorous admissions process and then submitted to constant supervision of their learning and practicing time. After two years, one student had achieved 225 words per minute, two were around 180, and the rest had given up.
My hypothesis is this: It's almost impossible to predict who's going to have what it takes to become a professional. Some mysterious combination of factors separated the hotshot professional qwerty transcriptionist with a Master's degree in literature -- who washed out of my steno school class around 140 WPM after two years of trying -- from me, who didn't have nearly the qualifications he did, but who got my 225 in 18 months. There are people who have gotten it in 11 months. Some have gotten it in 9. What do they have that the other students don't? No one has been able to figure that out. But that's why I think that professional certification shouldn't be the one and only goal in the steno world. If most people who learn steno only reach 140 WPM or 160 WPM and can't get a job as professional stenographers, does that mean the whole endeavor was wasted? Well, if they're out $20,000 and several years of full-time slogging? Yeah. That seems like they made a pretty bad decision. But if they're out $100 and a few months of practicing or playing a video game for fun whenever they have a spare moment? 140 WPM ain't chopped liver. If their day job consists of typing, they've just upgraded their qwerty keyboard for a vastly more efficient and ergonomic model.
This is why The Open Steno Project is so important to me. Right now the good name of steno is being spoiled by the exploitative for-profit steno school system. Far more steno students are losing money than making money, and no matter how you look at it, that's not right. That's not how a trade school should work. It might well be impossible to increase the success rate. If lots of people want to study steno, only a tiny fraction will ever become professionals, and there's no way of predicting which ones will succeed, the only ethical solution is to lower the stakes. Allow anyone to play around with steno on their own time, requiring only minimal financial investment. Those that have a knack and a passion for it can undergo more rigorous training and push themselves over the top, where the money is. Maybe that would involve a paid professional training program, but if so the admission requirement should be 150 WPM, at a baseline. The rest can do it for its own sake, for fun or to aid in other text-heavy pursuits. But even if they decide it's not for them, they'll only be out $100 plus whatever time they chose to put into it. They won't be miserably indebted and forcing themselves to work at something they hate and will never be good at. Debt and desperation will not keep my profession alive, and it will not keep my beloved stenographic technology alive. With its secretarial fallback base long since hollowed out, the for-profit trade school model is in the process of collapsing, and it's bringing thousands of financially captive students along with it. If steno is going to survive, it needs to be open and it needs to be free.