New Rule Targets Non-Traditional Students

By Art Keiser

Millions of older working adults do not follow the career track from high school to college. Sometimes called "non-traditional" students, these are individuals who, for many reasons, find themselves back in the classroom at age 25, 35, 45 or beyond. Non-traditional students come from lower-income families, have children and other family obligations, serve in the military or travel other paths not directly leading to college at age 18. Now, while verbally encouraging these individuals back to school, the U.S. Department of Education, through its controversial "gainful employment" regulation, will make it much more difficult for these students to get the college education they need and want.

The gainful employment regulation, the government’s supposed answer to excessive student debt, singles out career-oriented private-sector colleges and universities (PCSUs) — in the department’s vernacular, "for-profit" schools. More than 60,000 Virginians are currently enrolled in these institutions. The gainful employment rule creates a debt-to-income ratio for determining program eligibility in student aid programs. The government would bar students using federal aid from entering programs that fail the pre-set ratio.

Washington’s approach has several shortcomings. The federal formula focuses only on the early years following graduation. Who recognizes their true earning potential in the early years? Also, if the gainful employment regulation makes sense, why not apply it to all college students, including medical students or law students who often graduate with deep debts? Or what about young people who spend upward of $150,000 or more for an English degree at elite liberal arts colleges?

Among baccalaureate degree programs, students at public and private non-profit colleges and universities account for the preponderance of those with excessive debt ($45,000 or more). Take away the public subsidies that these types of schools enjoy — and that no one likes to mention when discussing college costs — and the debt volumes would go through the roof.

The new rule targets non-traditional students, limiting choice and diminishing the value of private-sector education for graduates. The economic and social costs for individuals denied educational opportunity in our country would be enormous, measured in increased unemployment benefits, welfare benefits, health care benefits, and related social program outlays.

Too many would seem to prefer to demonize private-sector colleges and universities based on isolated anecdotes rather than to spur job growth, spread equality of opportunity and shore up the shrinking American middle class by supporting a sector covering 13 percent of higher education. Sometimes it is easier, given the biases of those who come from traditional education, to see a few trees rather than the entire forest. In the case of PSCUs, the "forest" equates to 3.8 million students attending our schools to improve their individual circumstances, people who want to turn from random jobs and frequent unemployment to meaningful careers.

Do we have a few problematic "trees"? Absolutely. So do traditional schools, and not just in their athletic programs. If the question is about debt, look at ways of limiting borrowing so that student loans do not become personal loans. No matter what the issue, the guiding principle in devising remedies should be fairness and application to all in higher education.


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