Blog: Department of Education Defies its Mission with ‘Discriminatory’ Rule

Kevin Kuzma, Editor

Rolling up what has mostly seemed like an "unwelcome mat" to for-profit schools, the U. S. Department of Education (DOE) opened its doors to speakers from all sectors of higher education at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. yesterday for a series of public hearings on its "gainful employment" rule.

The DOE is hosting the hearings as a follow-up to the official comment period for the "gainful employment" notice of proposed rulemaking. During the 90-day period that began last summer, some 90,000 letters were submitted, the majority of which decried the department's intentions. As originally proposed, the most controversial rule in the department's history would eliminate programs at for-profit institutions in which its graduates' debt service-to-income ratio exceeded 8 percent of their total income, or 20 percent of their discretionary income.

The first half of four hearings were held Thursday, with the second half scheduled for today. These engagements presented a chance for for-profit schools to offer their comments — in person — to department officials and share their reasons for opposing the rule. Speakers at the hearings had to submit their thoughts during the initial comment period.

All of the hearings were held at the Barnard Auditorium, which felt more like an expansive corporate meeting room than a hall. Actually, there was just as much insight in being there and seeing how the department presents itself, publicly, as there was in the spoken comments. The DOE's organizational mission statement was literally on full display in the main lobby, but its execution was another matter.

A panel of DOE representatives, including undersecretary James Kvaal, sat a short table about 10 feet away from the podium where the speakers offered their perspective on the gainful employment rule. The speakers were given some preliminary instructions to limit their comments to five minutes, no more. Their elapsed time progressed in a small light display on the podium that gradually moved through green, yellow and finally red, to let them know their time had expired. At the beginning of each session, a DOE representative noted that the panel might ask follow-up questions for confirmation purposes, but they never did.

The speakers came one after another, for a total of three-plus hours split between the morning and afternoon sessions, which Career College Central covered in detailed updates on Facebook and Twitter (check it out). The majority of the 40 or so presenters on the first day were decidedly against the rule. One former Herzing University student shared a story about being the first in her family to graduate with a college degree. A representative from the Nevada Hotel and Lobby Association explained that the state's hotels and casinos couldn't operate without educated workers. CEOs from marketing companies spoke as did representatives from school associations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and large school conglomerates.

Their verdict? That the DOE should rescind its proposed rule. And their reasoning reinforced the opinions voiced in the thousand of letters received: the rule should apply to all of higher education or not at all; gainful employment is discriminatory because it limits educational choice to minorities and the underprivileged; the department has overstepped its bounds by attempting to judge program quality; the demographic of students attending for-profit schools lends itself to higher default rates; and so on.

But by far, the accusation that was made most in the comments was that "GE", as it has come to be called, is discriminatory.

During a coffee break, a colleague pointed out to me the DOE's mission statement in stilted writing on a wall inside the main entrance. The last three words of the statement were "ensuring equal access." For the better part of three hours, we'd heard people who had traveled from across the nation berate the rule because it prevented access to higher education to people who need it most. Those last few words are in direct defiance of what the department will accomplish with the gainful employment rule and contradicts the philosophy the organization was established to abide by.

In the higher education world, a mission statement collects an institution's most sacred principles. The best are short and concise, explaining in the simplest terms the philosophy that motivates an institution to fulfill nearly every aspect of its operation, from classroom instruction to its campus community.

The mission statement serves as a reference point for administrators during staff meetings or, say, important budget discussions. Any pivotal conversation can be halted at any time to revisit the mission statement. Discussion participants can steer all the divergent viewpoints back to the simplest principles or, if you like, the simplest of questions: What is our institution to accomplish? From there, a secondary question can be posed: how is what we're proposing now (be it the addition of a new program or the cost for new lab equipment) in line with our original goals as an institution?

Since so many places of higher learning believe in mission statements, it only makes sense that the highest education office in the land, the U. S. Department of Education, has derived one for its purposes, too: "The DOE's mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access."

The DOE has apparently taken on a new mission: to steer Americans away from for-profit schools and toward community colleges. Whatever its intentions are, it's clear "equal access" is no longer a concern.

The public hearings were arranged by the department to show it wants to listen to opposing views. Next time they have guests over, though, they might want to temporarily remove the signage.

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