The career education debate needs solutions, not scapegoats

That’s the story, in a nutshell, of the first in a series of hearings that the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee is holding about private sector colleges and universities. Headlining a panel of witnesses on Thursday, June 24, will be Steven Eisman, a portfolio manager at FrontPoint Financial Services. He’s not an expert on higher education, career training or workforce trends. But he does stand to benefit enormously from a drop in the stock prices of publicly traded higher education companies.

The problem isn’t that a hedge fund manager is shorting career colleges. The problem is that this hearing is shortchanging an urgent national challenge: In the midst of this recession, how can we prepare people for fast-growing fields that require higher levels of skills and credentials than the industries that are shedding jobs?

We don’t need a short seller scapegoating an entire sector of higher education and denigrating the students who elect this route to attain the skills and learning needed for successful careers. We do need a serious discussion about how to meet the needs of young people and mature workers who aren’t being served by traditional colleges and universities and if left unschooled aren’t equipped for the fast-changing labor market.

Let’s begin by asking how America can answer President Obama’s challenge to produce more college graduates than any other nation by the year 2020. That’s the best way to increase the competence of our workers, the quality of our goods and services, and the competitiveness of our companies in the global marketplace.

In order to meet the president’s goal by the middle of the next decade, the United States needs to turn out at least another 63 million college grads. That’s 16 million more than the nation is expected to produce if current trends continue.

Traditional institutions of higher education are not picking up the slack. Facing huge budget deficits, state governments are slashing funds for higher education, causing many public universities to cut programs, layoff staff and raise tuitions — restricting access. With the recession taking its toll on their endowments, private liberal arts colleges are concentrating even more of their recruitment attention on young people from affluent families — restricting access. Community colleges are also suffering from the states’ budget problems and are turning students away, especially those who want to pursue careers in high-demand fields such as nursing — again restricting access.

Meanwhile, career colleges’ total enrollments have been increasing by 11 percent a year and now number more than 2.8 million students. This sector is growing because it serves the needs of today’s students, workers, businesses and the entire economy.

Even in the best of times, only about 25 percent of the population has the funds and the opportunity for a traditional college education. With flexible schedules geared to the demands of working adults and curricula geared to the demands of the labor market, these nontraditional colleges serve nontraditional students: More than 40 percent are over the age of 25. About half come from families with incomes below $40,000. Almost 50 percent are the first in their families to pursue higher education. Many are returning from military service. And they graduate from our two-year institutions in much higher rates than from traditional schools’ two-year programs.

Far from being played for suckers, these are mature and responsible people deciding how best to invest in their skills and advance in the workforce. By attending schools with a laser-like focus on the skills that employers seek for the positions that they offer, these students are preparing for many of the fastest-growing occupations. In today’s all-Internet, all-the-time world, if schools did not offer quality education, students would not choose them.

With almost 3,000 career colleges and 200,000 employees, institutions in this sector make occasional mistakes. Every sector of higher education has done likewise. But even one breach is too many, and career colleges are eager to maintain a regulatory environment that protects students, employers and taxpayers.

The future of career education deserves an open hearing whose findings weren’t foregone conclusions when the witness list was determined. Private sector colleges and universities have earned their place in America’s system of higher education, and they deserve a respected seat at the policymaking table.

Harris Miller is the president and CEO of the Career College Association (CCA), an organization representing and advocating on behalf of more than 1,500 accredited, private, postsecondary schools, institutes, colleges and universities that provide professional and career specific educational programs. He is the former president of the Information Technology Association of America.