My Words in The Hill

On Tuesday, a letter to the editor I submitted to The Hill was published in response to an August 19th opinion piece by former Governor McKernan (R-ME). The op-ed asked the Department of Education to refrain from discriminating against for-profit colleges and re-think their proposed gainful employment rule. See below for my letter:

Critics of private sector education have been working overtime over the past few months. And despite some bad behavior from a few for-profit providers, there is substantial misunderstanding of this sector of higher education and the real consequences of the Department of Education’s proposed actions.

The Department of Education’s proposed gainful employment rule endeavors to curb rampant student debt; actually it has the potential to limit educational opportunities for thousands of students across the country. In his opinion piece “Don’t discriminate against proprietary colleges”, Governor McKernan notes that the purpose of federal student aid is to provide access by helping disadvantaged students reach their potential. Unfortunately, the gainful employment rule will achieve just the opposite – limiting access.

Whereas private sector schools provide low-income and non-traditional students with educational access and opportunity, the gainful employment rule moves to strip that opportunity from some of the most vulnerable students.

The gainful employment rule has the potential to hurt the very students it was written to help, as Governor McKernan notes. Instead of helping, it undermines the true congressional intention of Title IV grants and loans. As a vehicle to enable opportunity in education, Title IV’s purpose is undermined as the gainful employment rule strips away access and becomes fundamentally altered if implemented as currently written.

Instead of imposing a one-size-fits-all solution to combat student debt, the Department of Education and Congress should strive to hear from those most affected by the proposed rule. I fear that the most vulnerable student will be the real losers.

Keep the Data Coming

The release of the Apollo Group’s study, Higher Education at a Crossroads, is another example of much-needed data in the for-profit education debate. While this study was commissioned by a private sector school, it should not be discounted, and it deserves attention along with what was reported here in a Chronicle of Higher Education article – about Apollo and about for-profit education in general. In this debate, all data should be welcomed and it should be evaluated on the usual issues, e.g., its methodology.

Private sector schools play an important role in our education system today.  They do so by providing non-traditional students access to college degrees. This study’s findings are quite startling and they have very significant policy implications.  While I have long argued that private sector schools are essential to meeting President Obama’s goal for college graduates, the study estimates that meeting the goal without proprietary colleges would cost taxpayers more than $800-billion over the next 10 years.  As anyone in a public college or university knows all too well, there is not enough public funding for our existing, public colleges and universities, much less an expansion of this enormity.

If the Department of Education moves forward with the gainful employment rule as proposed, the educational future of our students will be jeopardized. I encourage the Department to take another look at how the rule will affect thousands of students that attend private sector institutions.

Education is Not a Commodity

Colleges and universities have a primary responsibility to the community in the social contract they are granted.  An essential aspect of that responsibility is the education of students. Without students, there would be no purpose for an educational institution, including research universities. Private sector institutions exist to educate and train students with the knowledge and skills they will need in their careers, on-the-job, and in real-world settings.

In a recent Jackson Sun column, Professor Harry Lee Poe muses that education is not a commodity. While it might seem that Professor Poe was intending to argue against the for-profit education model, the article turns out to be quite the opposite. Instead, Poe emphasizes the importance of what he calls “corporate colleges” in adult education. “College education has become as important as a high school education was 40 years ago.” – he states – and private sector schools make it possible for adults to receive a vital portion of their education.

We need a variety of forms of higher education, and private sector schools in their considerable diversity represent many aspects of higher education.  Restrictions, like the ones proposed by the Department of Education’s proposed gainful employment rule have the considerable potential to limit some of those forms of higher education – either by restricting access of students to some of them or restricting new entrants into the higher education market.  Moreover, the rule is turning the attention of for-profit schools away from education and on regulation or the potential for it.  It is time to re-examine the full consequences of the proposed rule before it is implemented – and before it jeopardizes the educational future of thousands of students.

Examining the Data

In an interview Tuesday on Bloomberg TV’s “In the Loop With Betty Liu,” Career College Association President Harris Miller discussed the current state of student loans at for-profit colleges. Following the U.S. Department of Education’s release of data last week on loan repayment rates at private sector schools across the country, Miller stressed the need to really understand the data before moving forward. He also highlighted the importance of focusing on the larger picture – why is the Department of Education going to cut access to hundreds of thousands of students?

I agree with President Miller. Understanding the data and its implications is a point I have argued before in this blog.  Yes, student debt is a problem, but it should not lead us to deprive some groups of students of their right to an education, nor should it lead us to risk becoming an even less competitive country in terms of graduation rates from colleges and universities.  If the goal of the Department of Education is to resolve the problem of growing student debt, it has far more analysis and examination to do in order to solve the problem.

New Study by The Center for College Affordability and Productivity

Today, The Center for College Affordability and Productivity released a study on for-profit higher education. The study found that industry leaders aim to create value for their students by “employing cost-effective strategies to meet market demand.” Supported by Lumina Foundation, the report also found:

‘The single characteristic that most sets for-profit institutions of higher learning apart from the traditional sectors of higher education is the profit motive,’ and economic theory suggests that for-profit schools ‘can only make a profit by providing educational services that are in high demand…[and by providing] something of value for the customer.’

 

I found this study interesting in its conclusion that the for-profit industry provides a valuable service to students. At a time when many critics are calling for major reforms of the industry, this study found that private sector schools were doing their best to give students the best possible educational experience.

Higher Education?

 

American higher education has remade itself into a vast job-training program.

-Diane Ravitch

 

While training students for careers is a departure from the traditional view of higher education as educator rather than trainer, there is something to be said for arming students with the tools necessary to succeed in their intended careers – especially in this economy. In his recent book, Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money And Failing Our Kids – And What We Can Do About It, Professor Andrew Hacker argues that colleges and universities are failing by not putting the students first. He opined in a recent NPR interview that we must make math, science, language, reading and foreign language the top five priorities at all levels of education – placing the importance of a liberal arts education well above the need for real world skills.

Although Mr. Hacker appears to argue against training and for education as the responsibility of higher education, it is clear to me that his argument for a graduate’s capacity to perform fundamental mathematics and to read and communicate effectively is really in support of a graduate’s capacity to be marketable and contribute to society.  So I cannot disagree.  On the other hand, what about other marketable, usable skills as a means of also putting students first? Why are we not putting students first by teaching them skills that will propel them into a career? As an educator, I sincerely understand the necessity of improved education in mathematics, science, etc. – knoweldge that you can build upon for the future. However, students also need to meet employers’ expectations for an ability to contribute upon entry into the workplace .

Consider this. Thousands of students spend upwards of $40,000 per year on tuition at traditional universities but end up with jobs paying far less than that once they graduate. To top it off, many of these jobs are not even within their fields of study. Is this fair? No, but it is a reality. On the other hand, students at private sector institutions generally pay a less in tuition and graduate with hands-on experience in a field. These students have marketable skills and can step into their jobs on day one, fully trained.

Education should enable the student and enrich society.  Both traditional schools and private sector ones have a place – and both have a responsibility.