By Kevin Kuzma, Online Editor
How or why traditional colleges and universities came to loathe career training-oriented colleges is probably a tale too long for telling in one blog post. I’m sure the vehemence is traceable, all the way back to the first telegram that was sent by a university administrator to the small business college down the hill from campus that was the first to "steal" a student.
I imagine that upon receiving the missive, the school owner’s reaction was probably much like it would be today: "Tough noogies, pal." And from there the vehemence grew on the traditional side for the mom-and-pop training schools that somehow managed to graduate students at the speed of light, comparatively, and whose biggest sin was to prepare learners for actual employment. These little business schools had the audacity to admit students paid for an education, and despite that fact evolved into the fastest-growing segment of higher education by implementing swift operations and the embracement of the latest technologies.
Whatever the cause, the two sectors of higher ed don’t understand one another. I doubt they ever will. Their viewpoints on education are too divergent. With the level of elitism that exists on the traditional side, they’ll never see eye to eye. The Department of Education’s "gainful employment" regulation is merely the latest battleground on which the two sectors differ. The DOE put them at odds — perhaps even more so than ever — by singling out "for-profit" schools as the sole sector that would be exposed to the rule.
Given the history on this issue alone, most intelligent people would understand that bad blood might exist between career colleges, the DOE, and four-year schools. But apparently the Association for Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU) with its latest lawsuit alleging that the DOE exceeded its authority in drafting the gainful employment regulation managed to create some amazement on the more traditional side of higher education. The feeling among some on the traditional side was that the career education sector should settle for the “watered down” version of the gainful employment regulation that went into effect earlier this month and be thankful more aggressive rules weren’t put in place. One lobbyist for traditional colleges and universities quoted in a Huffington Post report last week said he was “taken aback by this total rejectionist position" and that career colleges had “decided that total war is the way to go.”
Total war, from the career college vantage point, has been underway for some time. The career college sector has been exposed to a long, coordinated attack for the better part of a year. The media is continually on the offensive with negative reports including former students. A Senate committee led by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has hosted several hearings about the use of financial aid money among for-profits. The unsubstantiated charges leveled at the sector were the most serious kind. The accusations have repeatedly targeted the sector claim career colleges defraud students for their financial aid money and abandon them with worthless educations.
If this is the opposition’s viewpoint, then it’s easy to see why they believe the sector should settle for the current version of gainful employment. The final rule is indeed much more lenient than the initial rule language. Some industry analysts thought the rule in its original form would have put up to 55 percent of career college programs under increased scrutiny. In turn, that would have led to the elimination of programs and, in some cases, faltering schools. If anything, the final version only backs up the potential damage for another few years. Under the rules that went into effect July 1, before a program can be shut down it must fail three tests in the same year for three out of four years before losing aid eligibility. These tests involve attaining at least 35 percent of former students are repaying their loan balance; yearly educational-debt payments of typical graduates account for a maximum of 12 percent of their total income; and those payments account for no more than 30 percent of their discretionary income.
All along, career college leaders and students have opposed gainful employment regulations because they believed the rules unfairly singled out one sector of higher education. They’ve said in letters to the Department of Education and in official testimony before the drafters of the rule that they believed the rules were discriminatory and would limit student choice. These are not sentiments that whither away simply because the opposition believes the final version of the rule is not as strong.
The only way the sector can stand up for itself is in court. The battlefront became courtrooms sometime late last year when APSCU sought clarification on how the DOE regulations should be interpreted given that the rules were confusing and written in legalese. Another suit sought to strike down rules restricting incentive pay and requiring schools offering online programs to abide by rules in each state. We saw the rulings on those issues last week.
To sit back and quietly accept all the charges that have been made is a lot ask of anyone. The sector has taken too much for too long. The sector’s leaders believe the rule is unfair in targeting them. They believe they changes students’ lives – for the better. And in the end, they have nothing to lose. Career colleges have always been looked down upon by the so-called higher realm of academia. APSCU’s lawsuit might help solve aspects to the gainful employment issue – what it can’t do is change blind prejudice.