By Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.)
In his first State of the Union address, President Obama proclaimed that, by 2020, the United States would once again lead the world in college graduates. However, despite the president’s ambitious goals, the Department of Education is proposing arbitrary restrictions on private sector colleges and universities that will disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged segments of the student population.
Now more than ever, adult learners, full-time workers, folks from low-income families, and a disproportionate number of African Americans and Hispanics turn to these institutions for the career-focused training, job placement assistance, and flexibility they offer.
Over the years, I have not only had the privilege of meeting many of these students, but have personally witnessed the profound impact of a career college education. In the months before my mother passed, of the many medical professionals who cared for her, at least eight of her nurses were graduates of Keiser University.
In Florida, career colleges confer one in five associate degrees awarded in the state, one in twelve bachelor’s degrees, and almost half of all occupational certificates. Seventy-six percent of the students attending private sector colleges and universities are self-supporting, 63 percent are 24 or older, and 47 percent are raising children.
Even in these difficult economic times, a college degree remains the key to a better job and more secure financial future. Among Americans age 25 or older, 4.3 percent of those with a college degree are unemployed, compared to 9.5 percent of those with only a high school diploma. While most workers’ wages have stagnated since 1979, college graduates have enjoyed a 19 percent increase in their inflation-adjusted earnings.
As a longtime fighter for economic opportunity, I am concerned that the regulations the Department of Education has proposed go against the very goals of federal education programs. Rather than opening the doors of opportunity for education and employment, they slam them shut on women, minorities, and individuals from working families. As our nation struggles to recover from this recession, the last thing we need is arbitrary regulations preventing students from obtaining the skills required to succeed in the 21st century economy.
This is why it is so troubling that, under the misleading title of “Gainful Employment” regulations, the Department wants to cut off federal aid for the schools most able to serve the very students who most need college degrees, including those who are the first in their families to go to college or are juggling jobs, kids, and classes.
The Department’s officials say that they are worried that these students won’t be able to pay back their college loans. This is a legitimate concern, but it is not one limited to private sector education.
It is for this reason that I sponsored a bipartisan measure with the Chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, John Kline (R-Minn.), along with Reps. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), and Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), that successfully passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 289-136, prohibiting the use of funds by the Department of Education for the implementation of its misguided “Gainful Employment” rule. I had hoped that this prohibition would have been maintained in the budget deal. But Senate leaders did not include the provision, which is extremely troubling and will ultimately limit access to education for students and many people employed at these schools all across the country will lose their jobs.
We must send a message to the Department that they should abandon this ill-conceived, rushed-through proposal and instead work with Congress to develop measures that limit student debt, expand educational opportunities, and measure educational quality across all sectors of higher education. I stand committed to improving the accessibility, effectiveness, and accountability of our nation’s higher education system for all students. And it is my sincere hope that the Department of Education will do the same.
Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) serves as senior member of the House Rules Committee, ranking Democratic member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and Democratic chairman of the Florida delegation.