July 30, 2012

Obama Administration gives for-profit colleges an 'A'

Randy Proto

After two years of contentious battles between the Obama administration and private-sector for-profit (i.e., taxpaying) career colleges, universities and schools, and endless accusations about 'worthless degrees', a judge largely threw out the administration's Gainful Employment rule, citing a key accountability aspect as "arbitrary." That's an important affirmation of the private-sector educators' view of the test, but not the whole story.

The Department of Education had argued vehemently that this rule was a clear, correct method of determining which programs and schools prepare their graduates for "gainful employment" and which don't. Meeting this standard, which applied to all private-sector programs including those in Connecticut, was to be the criteria for determining whether students attending programs offered at these schools should have access to federal loans and grants.

So what's the rest of the story? The Obama administration found that 95 percent of the programs reported passed its own test.

That's a solid "A."

So, if you're wondering if for-profits are doing a reasonably good — not perfect mind you — job of preparing students for gainful employment — look no further. The Obama administration has answered that question — 95 percent are preparing students reasonably well.

This is good news for the State of Connecticut. It means that the people who depend on the dental technicians, mechanics and hospitality professionals who graduate from Connecticut's numerous private-sector schools will continue to be able to gain the skills they need to hold those jobs.

It would, of course, be helpful if taxpayers and students could compare this group's "A" against how public and private nonprofits schools fare. But we can't because oddly, due to a 50-year-old somewhat elitist view of college embedded in law, the degree programs offered by public and private non-profits don't need to demonstrate that they prepare students for gainful employment. The rule only applied to a miniscule fraction of their programs.

So, they get an 'I,' — incomplete.

Let's face some facts. Students don›t care which institution people in power prefer; neither do taxpayers. Students and taxpayers care about whether their investment in education is a good one.

Piecemeal accountability and transparency rules simply don't get us there.

We all should be wary of anyone who favors selectively applied transparency and accountability rules over universally applied requirements. That usually means the playing field is being tilted to favor some powerful interest.

Imagine students, or you, ending up at a degree program at a public college because the same program at the career college down the street had to close under this rule. Then, imagine finding out that students in that program are one-third less likely to complete and those who did complete took twice as long to do so, with no better job prospects than those who attended the program the government rule closed.

I operate American Institute, which has served Connecticut since the 1920's and I know students and taxpayers in our state wouldn't want this approach.

Private-sector educators didn't fight the Gainful Employment regulation because we oppose accountability. On the contrary, we fought it because we oppose selective, biased rules that benefit some institutions to the detriment of others and their students.

We support real accountability and transparency across the entire higher education landscape: for-profit, nonprofit, public and private. With this approach students, taxpayers and quality win. And, it will enable our education system to sustainably fuel job growth.

But, if we allow politicians to give some institutions a free pass, we all lose.

So, how do we move forward? By instituting regulatory reform that creates a level playing field across all higher education and that doesn't needlessly differentiate among institutions. By requiring our political leaders treat the institutions that professionals and tradesmen as equally valuable. By requiring they provide comparable, comprehensive information about student and taxpayer costs and benefits to the public; and holding them to the same accountability standards.

If legislators and regulators did so, they could more easily create frameworks that enable students to move between institutions under a financing structure that better balances student and taxpayer risk and returns.

For decades, private-sector educators have adeptly seen and filled gaps in how higher education meets student and workforce needs. We educate non-traditional students, particularly veterans, single mothers and working adults, who need and take different paths to higher education and advancement in the workforce.

Those of us working in private-sector education want to engage the administration and our colleagues in a public dialogue regarding accountability, transparency, choice, efficacy, cost and affordability. We have ideas to improve all of them.

President Obama has said the private sector is 'doing just fine.' It's not. In this corner of the dialogue, we've been viewed more as targets than partners — to all students' detriment. It's time to change that.

Randy Proto is CEO of American Institutes Holdings LLC, a group of five schools including Fox Institute in West Hartford.

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