By Lauren Camera
Now that Arne Duncan is no longer perched atop the Department of Education, the for-profit higher education sector is hoping his successor will take a different – and perhaps less punishing – tack toward its schools.
The head of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, Steve Gunderson, suggested in a letter this week to new Acting Education Secretary John King that he take a more cooperative approach to the department's interaction with for-profits.
"A New Year, and new leadership at the department, brings opportunities for new beginnings," wrote Gunderson, a former GOP member of Congress from Wisconsin.
He continued: "My hope is that together we can begin an era of constructive collaboration that never forgets our common mission in serving the students enrolled in our sector's schools. Unfortunately, the past six years have been marked by an era of ideological confrontation where nobody wins – especially the students."
Gunderson argued that the policies of the Obama administration over the last six years, which have led to federal regulatory and legal battles, have resulted in less access for students – especially those who have been historically underserved – and fewer workers with occupational skills.
"There is a real perception that the current government is embarked upon a war on our sector and our schools unlike anything ever before directed at any sector of higher education," he wrote. "As much as I am a fan of all sectors of higher education, I believe that no sector could survive the level of investigations and attacks that have been directed to our schools in recent years."
The for-profit college industry indeed has come under fire from the Obama administration and from Democrats in Congress after it boomed from serving just a couple hundred thousand students in 1990 to around 1.7 million in 2010. And those students, while accounting for 10 percent of all undergraduates at most, have accounted for a disproportionate amount of student loan defaults.
Gunderson framed the enrollment explosion as a result of more people seeking degrees during the Great Recession, leaving out any mention of the unscrupulous marketing and recruiting tactics some for-profit schools have been accused of. Many students enrolled at for-profit schools also never completed their programs, or did but found their degrees of little use; in both cases, they were typically saddled with high levels of student loan debt.
Most recently, the government announced a $100 million settlement – the largest ever concerning career colleges – in the wake of accusations that one company illegally compensated its employees based on how many students they recruited and enrolled in programs.
"Looking back," Gunderson wrote of the enrollment surge, "many of those students were neither academically nor personally prepared to complete their studies resulting in dropout rates and default rates unacceptable to anyone."
Gunderson argued the for-profit sector is different today than it was when President Barack Obama took office. For example, it's dramatically smaller, serving 562,000 fewer students in the 2013-2014 school year than in the 2009-2010 year. And it produced 20,000 more academic awards during the 2013-2014 school year than it did at the height of the recession.
"Today, this sector is focused upon providing career skills in areas of growing demand, often projected skill shortages," he wrote. "Unless the sector is supported in this effort, students will miss access and opportunities for real careers while employers will be unable to meet their need for skilled workers."
And as for-profits move forward, Gunderson pleaded that King take a different tack than his predecessor, who throughout his tenure skewered the sector and implemented policies like gainful employment – a regulation that requires schools to meet minimum thresholds with respect to the debt-to-income rates of their graduates.
"Unfortunately, there is a growing history of the department attacking the entire sector rather than individual schools," Gunderson wrote. "There are good and bad performers in every sector of higher education. Do not accuse any group of schools when addressing the department's concerns regarding a specific school."
Gunderson asked that higher education standards and regulations be applied fairly to all schools, "rather than continuing an ideological attack on our entire sector."
He also cited the academic fraud at some Division I athletic programs – arguing that it "far exceeds" any allegation against for-profit schools – and asked to sit down with King "as soon as possible," though he hadn't heard back from anyone at the Education Department as of Friday, an association spokesman says.
Regardless, it's unlikely King or the department will alter course significantly, or at all, as King has said several times his plans for the last year of the Obama administration are to build upon the groundwork that's already been laid.
"To the extent that higher education institutions are focused on making sure that students don't just start but finish their degrees and have degrees that are high-quality and allow them to be successful in the 21st-century economy, we are supportive of that," King said during a press conference Tuesday in response to a question about Gunderson's letter.
"To the extent that there are institutions not fulfilling those responsibilities, we are going to push them to pay attention to those things, and that is true for the entire higher education sector," King added.
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