Blog: ‘Gainful Employment’ Faces Uncertain Future, But Awareness About For-profit Schools Grows

By Kevin Kuzma, Editor

About three years ago, when I was imbedded with for-profit school lobbyists making the rounds on Capitol Hill, their greatest struggles were far from overturning biased regulations from heavy-handed government departments.

Before any real discussion could begin in meetings with members of Congress or their staff people, lobbyists had their hands full explaining the concept of a career college and the major differences between them and other types of higher learning institutions. Many of the aides had themselves graduated from Ivy League schools, or if not, had just walked across stages on major college and university campuses to pick up their diplomas. These were (and still are) 22-25 year-olds fresh from fulfilling their Greek lives at institutions where they were virtually unknown to anyone but a handful of friends and professors.

Understandably, they had almost no concept of a career-training oriented college’s mission, so before real discussions could begin on the issues back then — 90/10, predominantly — significant time had to be spent describing for-profit schools’ demographics, program flexibility, and the career fields in which graduates made tremendous impacts.

When the meetings were over, there was only a superficial understanding of the issues facing career colleges, and there wasn’t necessarily any importance attached to those issues among the many staffers who sat patiently trying to understand.

For better or worse, this is no longer the case in Washington. The last 18 months or so of intense media scrutiny and Senate hearings — including much of the attention around Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and his mishandling of his battle against the schools — has created a real awareness of the industry. Yesterday, as part of the 400 students and educators joining the Association for Private Sector Colleges and Universities 2011 “Hill Day” event, I again was imbedded with a group walking the halls of government hoping to continue the fight against the Department of Education’s “gainful employment” rule.

We’d spent a full day in preparation, which was a switch from years before. During APSCU’s Policy Forum at the Washington Court Hotel, several panels of industry experts provided a refresher about the issues relevant to our sector. In recent years, a couple of hours were dedicated to this run-through, and it took place the morning of the Hill Day visits. Our messages would be better if they were simple, so I thought this preparation might have been a bit too involved.

My group included college owners from the Midwest, a few students, and a regional employer. Together, our scheduled appointments involved members of Congress from our region, and in every meeting we visited with Congressional aides. All of them were extremely knowledgeable in not only the gainful employment rule debate, but also in the mission of for-profit schools and the students they serve.

Granted, every discussion was friendly because several of the members on our list were representatives who voted yes on the gainful employment amendment to HR 1 and several Senators likely to support it with their votes in the Continuing Resolution. But the conversations this year were much, much deeper than my previous experiences at Hill Day. There was a great deal of understanding about for-profit schools and many elected officials who apparently realize the gainful employment rule penalizes the entire sector, not just a few "bad actors."

Overall the feeling on the Hill seemed to be that the gainful employment amendment faces an uncertain future in the Senate. We were told in various conversations that it was literally "anyone’s guess" as to whether or not the amendment will gain approval. Many Senate Republicans are likely to vote in favor of the amendment. And there were suggestions for how to gain votes on the Democratic side.

But the consensus was that the government has its hands full with much larger issues, and that was easy to interpret from the crowds. The Capitol was the busiest I’ve seen it. Every office we stepped into was jammed with people wanting to discuss different issues. Right now, the House and Senate are most concerned with avoiding a government shutdown. As I passed by other groups hoping to corral members of Congress for a few minutes of their time, it was easy to see how an issue like the gainful employment rule wouldn’t necessarily be the government’s focus (it’s not even the most contentious debate by a long shot.)

I think a 50-50 shot of the GE amendment passing the Senate is where we stand now. That’s better than I would have thought prior to Hill Day. Regardless of what happens with that issue, more importantly our nation’s leaders have our schools on their radar screens, and many of them now see the value in something they hadn’t seen before.

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