Real Clear Policy: The Education Department Attacks Career Colleges

January 28, 2014

By Steve Gunderson

Over the next six years, there will be 55 million new job openings in the U.S. Nearly 32 million of these new hires will replace retiring Baby Boomers, while another 23 million will take new jobs. And by 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education.

To help students gain the skills that employers demand, America needs a robust postsecondary-education system, one that gives students the option of pursuing job training instead of a traditional liberal education. Yet President Obama, his White House, and the U.S. Department of Education seem focused on a campaign against career colleges -- private-sector colleges and universities, as well as certificate programs at nonprofit and public colleges.

This is the motivation behind the department's proposed "gainful employment" regulation. In essence, it would strip federal funding from career-college programs if they don't pass two metrics. The first would require graduates' debt to be less than 8 percent of their total income or 20 percent of their discretionary income three years after graduation. The second metric requires that a program's "cohort default rate" be below 30 percent.

Schools serving students who are underserved and overlooked by traditional higher education are very likely to fail these metrics. By the department's own estimation (based on a single year of data), 20 percent of programs won't measure up. Many programs across other sectors of higher education would fail the metrics, too -- a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Michigan, a law degree from George Washington University Law School, a bachelor's degree in social work from Virginia Commonwealth University -- if the metrics were applied to them.

Thanks to what can only be described as academic redlining by the department, by the end of the decade, millions of students -- working adults, minorities, service members returning from active duty, and people who were laid off from work -- would be denied access to the postsecondary education of their choice. About 80 percent of students attending career colleges use federal financial aid, and they turn to education to better their lives and their future -- not just their income the first three years out of school. In fact, many students, whether coming out of career colleges or public universities, exchange life experiences for income. Take the students leaving work temporarily to raise a family, join the Peace Corps, or enroll in Teach for America. Surely, these students are not pursuing these endeavors to earn the most money they can.

Similarly, a student entering the health-care field might take an opportunity in a small town that could pay less than a similar job in a big city. Three years later, that student could still be there by his own choice. But that student's earnings potential is still substantially higher than it would have been without the degree: He will always have the option of pursuing higher salaries in other areas of the country.

With the gainful-employment regulation, the Obama Administration seeks to impose a one-size-fits-all solution to a complex issue: postsecondary education. There are legitimate conversations to be had, and legitimate solutions that would help make college more affordable and students more successful. But these conversations must include all sectors of higher education and acknowledge the variety of students' lifestyles and pursuits.

Steve Gunderson is president and CEO of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities.

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