The Three R’s of Higher Ed Policy: Response, Respect and Resolve

By Jack Massimino

If some in the education and political establishments have their way, many of today’s current and aspiring post-secondary students will be relegated to flipping burgers and standing in unemployment lines. For these champions of the status quo, the three Rs stand for reluctance, resistance, and recalcitrance — reluctance to face new realities, resistance to fresh ideas and recalcitrance in the face of change.

Will the establishment listen to the message sent by a bi-partisan majority in the House of Representatives, which recently voted to block one set of proposed U.S. Department of Education regulations that would shut the door to career training for hundreds of thousands of ambitious Americans?

Here is a reality: Unemployment is the most pressing challenge facing America today. Robust economic growth is a big part of the solution, but developing a workforce with the training and skills to match current and future job opportunities is equally important. The route to full employment goes through the classroom.

The numbers are compelling. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for those with only a high school diploma is almost a fourth higher than the average for all workers. For those without a high school diploma, the unemployment rate is 85 percent higher than the national average. Likewise, the average wage for high school graduates is almost 20 percent below the national average and for those who did not finish high school, their earnings are more than 40 percent lower than the national average.

Another reality: In recent years, enrollment in private sector post-secondary institutions has grown at a rate more than five times than that in public community colleges. There are reasons for this disparity. As effective as they are, public community colleges face state-mandated budget cuts, are strapped for revenue and are unable to make needed investments in faculty, facilities and programs. Community colleges are mostly geared to general academic education, where private sector career colleges focus on job training and employment skills in demand in the marketplace.

Traditional academic education doesn’t work for everyone, and our society cannot afford to write off those who do not fit the traditional mold or are unable to access public community college programs. Career colleges are investing in people and programs at the same time that the public sector has had to scale back. Increasingly, private sector schools have been filling a vital niche in our educational system.

In the face of these realities, however, some establishment diehards are actively pushing for arcane rules that effectively would exclude from federal student loans many of the private sector programs that do the best job in providing career training to men and women who most need it.

Most public college programs would be exempt from these rules.

Why? Critics seem to suggest that the investment of private dollars in career colleges somehow taints the educational process. A few public officials, such as Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, have picked up on this issue by holding hearings to showcase industry lapses. And while hundreds of thousands graduate from career colleges, find good-paying jobs and go on to successful careers, the news media have focused on a handful of instances where things haven’t gone right.

But the private sector’s real sin appears to be delivering better results than many traditional community colleges. According to U.S. Department of Education data, when it comes to overall success rates – graduation, certificates, or transfer rates – private sector career colleges outperform public two-year colleges, 69 percent to 62 percent.

The rate is even more dramatic for minority students, who are graduating from private sector career colleges at almost double the rate of public two-year colleges.

Career colleges are also helping their graduates find meaningful work.

Over a 30-year career, the average career college graduate will gain $250,000 in added earnings.

But regulatory excess can be an access killer for those who most need training and education to improve their lives. Ill-considered rules discourage schools from admitting high-risk students and lending to low-income students who may need to borrow more to attend school.

Another regulation actually results in higher tuition to meet federal formulas.

As a result of these rules, both in force and proposed, the existence of many training programs for jobs that are most in demand-medical services, criminal justice, and others — could fall by the wayside.

The House recently voted to stop one set of regulations – but there are many others, and much work to do, before students can be assured of their right to choose programs that will help them find meaningful work and careers.

Education should be about serving student needs and not about protecting turf. Should private sector colleges be subject to reasonable rules and regulations, and required to meet high standards? Absolutely. But private sector colleges — and more importantly their students — shouldn’t be punished for their success.

Indeed, instead of reluctance, resistance and recalcitrance, the three Rs of higher education policy should be response to the needs of all students; respect of the differences in their learning styles and situations; and the resolution to help the unemployed and underemployed achieve personal success.


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