A New Beginning
Donald Trump’s election night surprise, along with the Republican takeover of government, has given career colleges hope for the first time in eight years.
After two terms of harsh criticism and strong regulatory oversight under the Obama administration brought the sector to its knees, the 2016 conservative takeover of the presidency, the Senate and the House have the sector positioned for new life.
Overnight, the outlook for career-training-oriented colleges did a complete turnaround. With President-elect Trump’s position for lessening regulation for all kinds of businesses and his own background as a school operator, excitement for the end of the dark era of school closings and for a new beginning in career education was quickly ushered in.
No one has felt the excitement more than Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of the sector’s main lobby organization, the Career Education Colleges and Universities (CECU). Since the election, Gunderson has been in nonstop meetings, and his phone has been ringing constantly. People throughout the sector want to know what the future holds — and when change might begin. He was gracious enough to take time from his busy schedule to sit down with Career College Central to share a bit about what the sector can finally look forward to.
CCC: How does the election outcome impact CECU’s organizational priorities for 2017 and beyond?
Gunderson: There are a couple of key points to make when you unpack the election. First, our sector has been on the defensive for eight years. When we looked at the potential Clinton administration and a Democratic Senate, we obviously were thinking about how we might save the sector in that kind of environment. Obviously, the election outcomes changed a lot of that for us. We are now figuring out the best strategy to reintroduce the sector to policymakers, the media, students, employers, etc., in ways that communicate the role our sector currently plays — and will play — in providing postsecondary career education.
Second, we want to state clearly that we’re not going back to where we were. We heard the message, and it is not just about access — it’s also about outcomes and accountability. The sector has responded to that, and we have to allow that to define us today. We can’t have the kind of bad press we had around 2010, when we enrolled every person regardless of his or her ability to complete the academic programs. We produced a whole group of dropouts. We had debt and no degrees. That era has stopped. We are a different sector, and we need to talk about that.
CCC: How do you think the election could potentially alter the wave of recent school closures?
Gunderson: We have seen a direct ideological assault on the sector, and you and I both can lift up examples of schools that voluntarily reported problems with financial aid or other issues to this Department of Education, only to have the department turn around and use that as a vehicle to impose letters of credit that were unattainable, resulting in school closures. We are going to work together now to solve problems. We’re not going to have confrontations where adults don’t speak to each other. That will be very, very important.
When you look at the economic policy of the president-elect, he is talking about lifting up those who have been left behind. He’s talking about lifting up those in the Rust Belt and rural areas where the wages have not kept pace. He’s talking about private sector incentives above the 1 percent or 2 percent annual gross domestic product rate. With all of that happening, all of the sudden you’re going to need a sector that produces skilled professionals to work in a growth/private sector economy. We are probably going to see more growth in our sector because of economic growth rather than because of a reduction in regulation.
CCC: What will the impact be on existing regulatory implementation?
Gunderson: The president-elect has made it very clear. He wants to reduce the regulatory oversight across all sectors of American society — that includes higher education and our particular sector. You will see some regulations that will impact everybody in higher education, and you will see others that are clearly directed on a narrower basis just toward us. We will see some of those outright repealed and some modified and changed. I think eventually between the Congress and the administration, we will see a reauthorization of the higher education act that will move toward a common set of outcome metrics for all of higher education.
CCC: What could the impact be on the accreditation attacks?
Gunderson: What we have to do as part of our reauthorization is establish or re-establish the importance of the triad. We need to make very clear what the roles and responsibilities of each element of that triad are so we don’t have what you and I would call authority creep, where the department is moving into areas it has not been in the past. Clearly, we believe in accreditation. We believe in strong accreditation. We believe in accreditation that is not politicized. I think we will all (starting with our accreditors) acknowledge that accreditation in the future will focus more on program outcomes, program accountability and program quality.
CCC: What do we want our sector’s position to be at the U.S. Department of Education?
Gunderson: We start with a campaign we just unveiled in November. Long before the election outcome, our strategists said to us, “You have to communicate the importance of this sector to America’s future, both individually and economically.” We did something that has never been done before. We had independent researchers look at the academic programs of every one of our schools. We had them connect that to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ occupational codes for those programs, and then we analyzed on a state-by-state basis what the projected demand would be, based on both growth and replacement of retirees. We announced a campaign to create 5 million career professionals in the decade ahead. The exciting thing is the initial data says we are probably going to be closer to 8 million. So, when you meet with the Senate or members of Congress, the first thing you do is sit down and say to them, “Look what this means for your state.” For example, I was in New Jersey recently, and I let officials know that they can expect to have over 170,000 career professionals created by our sector’s schools in the decade ahead. That's over 17,000 per year. All of a sudden that really defines who we are, what we do, and why we are important. Then we move from that to the reauthorization of the higher education act, and we offer positive, proactive proposals that will enable us to serve the students we seek to serve and also serve communities where our student graduates will be employed.