Judge Career Colleges by Performance; Don’t Limit Student Choice

by Jim McFarland

We all know, understand and fully appreciate that an educated work force is fundamental to ensuring our economic security.

So, I was troubled to learn The Seattle Times backs the U.S. Department of Education intention to enforce regulations that actually weaken our nation’s work force ["Toughen rules on for-profit colleges," editorial, Opinion, March 28].

Last year, the Education Department proposed the Gainful Employment rule, a foolish idea, really, that would target only career colleges like the Art Institute of Seattle and its students.

The rule has nothing to do with gainful employment — it is only a test of student financial management. If you applied the same test to law schools and medical schools, they would all fail the test miserably.

Career colleges and the talented graduates they produce are vital to maintaining a strong work force in Seattle and the state of Washington. I know because I was board chair of the Art Institute when we grew from 800 students to more than 2,400 in a 15-year period.

The most gratifying numbers, however, were tremendous growth in persistence rates and job placements. Annually, our persistence rates — meaning the rate at which students persist toward a degree in consecutive quarters — and our job-placement rates are substantially higher than public schools.

The reason for this performance is that students pay for their education with their own funds or federal loans. You are missing the issue if you look at how many loans are made or not made at a career institution. The real issue is whether it is a good school — defined by students staying in school and getting a job when they graduate.

I can attest to the value these students bring in helping our local businesses in Seattle grow and prosper. Since they receive such highly focused and career-driven training at AIS and many other high-quality career colleges, these students are able to immediately enter the work force.

If you really want to begin to make substantial changes to the career-college system throughout America, do not tinker with the federal loans. That is punitive to the student. Instead, look at the capabilities of the schools. Here are some ideas:

  • First, stop the sale of regional accreditations. When a college changes ownership, that should trigger a thorough review by an accreditation body before the transfer happens to ensure academic rigor continues.
  • Second, work with career colleges to develop acceptable and standardized measures of success, particularly measuring persistence, admissions, career counseling and placement rates.
  • Third, require that all career colleges become accredited after several years of operation.

Then require that their operating budgets provide acceptable funds dedicated to admissions, persistence, career, job-placement support and counseling. Proper levels there will ensure student success.

The Times and the Department of Education are wielding too broad a brush. Make the decisions based on performance at career schools, not by reducing choices of their students.

Jim McFarland is a former chairman of the board of trustees of the Art Institute of Seattle (1991 — 2006).

THE SEATTLE TIMES

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