Low Blow to Higher Education

The Department of Education’s "gainful employment" rule has moved from threat to reality. And that reality will be a giant step backward for nontraditional students seeking to improve their employment prospects through higher education. So what does this new regulation really mean?

By conditioning federal loans on a student’s debt-to-income ratio and the repayment rate of his for-profit institution, the department will deny Americans across the country access to postsecondary education programs. As a result, those Americans will lose opportunities for better jobs and better lives for themselves and their families.

It means the Obama administration has established special rules to single out those pursuing career-focused education. As such, it means that the real challenges of limiting debt among college graduates will continue unabated.

It also means the administration is pulling back from its goal of increasing access to higher education for more Americans. In fact, even calling this regulation “gainful employment” is an attempt to frame it as a positive move when, in practice, it will be hurtful to millions of students and limit their employment opportunities. A more accurate description would be to call it the “gambling with education” rule.

The Department of Education clearly made some changes to the earlier version of this rule – thanks in large part to the impressive efforts of private-sector college and university students, who held their first-ever rally on Capitol Hill last year. But the department is still exceeding its statutory authority by issuing the rule, and we still don’t know how many of the 3.2 million students attending private-sector colleges and universities it will impact. We do know that the rule contradicts the president’s 2020 challenge for U.S. leadership in postsecondary education, the need to build a more globally competitive work force to protect jobs and the American middle class, the intent of Congress to provide the opportunity for all Americans to gain upward mobility through higher-education access, and the determination by the Obama administration to eliminate unnecessary and burdensome regulation.

Private-sector colleges and universities (PSCUs) offer career-focused, flexible learning opportunities that often are unavailable elsewhere because of multiyear waiting lists for popular community college programs in high-demand fields such as nursing or inaccessible because nontraditional students balancing jobs, families and education need scheduling options rarely available at traditional institutions. PSCUs also offer online learning opportunities critical for working adults, veterans and parents, as well as small classes to ensure the personal attention often difficult to obtain in large state institutions.

Most important, PSCUs get results. Approximately 70 percent of graduates of nationally accredited private-sector schools go on to find work in their chosen field. And though PSCUs serve a higher-risk, nontraditional student population, their two-year-institution graduation rate is 60 percent – much higher than that at community colleges. The combined rate of two- and four-year institutions is 44 percent – comparable with that at traditional colleges and universities.

On a percentage basis, PSCUs award twice as many bachelor’s degrees to minority students as do traditional four-year colleges and are more successful than their traditional higher-education counterparts at graduating at-risk students.

Higher education needs a level playing field, but the gainful-employment metric applies only to private-sector colleges and universities and the certificate programs of non-degree-granting nonprofit institutions, in which relatively few students enroll. In an environment where good jobs are very difficult to come by and global competition increases the need for skills and education, it makes little sense to limit postsecondary access and shrink opportunity.

Arthur Keiser is chairman of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities.


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