Obama needs to support choice in higher education

The President and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have both regularly talked about more options for parents in education. In a recent Time magazine interview, Secretary Duncan said, “I am a big fan of choice and competition...the more options available, the more we give parents a chance to figure out what is the best learning environment for their child.”  

The same Obama Administration, however, is moving in the exact opposite direction as it relates to its higher education policy making. Take for example, the Department of Education’s (DOE) insistence on pushing the proposed Gainful Employment rule for private-sector colleges. That proposal ostensibly seeks to ensure that graduates of higher education institutions are able to find work after college. The proposal also aims to end recruiting fraud by some for profit colleges by linking federal college loans with the students ability to pay the loan back. Noble goals but by gauging a program’s success based on the student loan debt of recent graduates, the White House is ignoring the fact that many people return to school to get better jobs, and paychecks, down the line, even if they have to start at the entry level. The Department of Education is counting against schools the many students who legally defer their loans for a few years until they have more money to pay them back.

The real effect of the regulations would be to remove choice options for students looking for realistic school to career college opportunities. Strikingly, minority and working class students would immediately lose access to college degree  programs that have worked for them. By raising the standards necessary to receive a college loan, especially in these economic times, our most vulnerable citizens would unwittingly be penalized. Many of the proprietary schools offering these programs would be forced to drop them. Careers like nursing and teaching would become virtually unattainable for thousands of minority citizens. In fact, several hundred thousand of the nearly three million students attending for profit colleges would have to drop out. Clearly such a result runs counter to the President’s goal of producing a more qualified workforce in our nation. It also runs counter to Secretary Duncan’s broad education policy commitment to choice and competition.

In the wake of these facts, why is the Administration so bound and determined to implement the Gainful Employment regulations? Some have suggested that the one underemphasized objective of the President is to increase the enrollment of the country’s community colleges. The thinking is that those institutions can service the needs of students currently attending for profit colleges at a much lower cost. Another noble goal but the problem is that students at community colleges have a nearly impossible time getting the classes they need to graduate, given the severe budget cutbacks.  Also, unlike the proprietary schools, community colleges have not been able to provide a clear path from school to career for its students.

More importantly, the cost to the taxpayer of a for profit education is less than that of a community college, with far better results. Community colleges graduate about 22 percent of their students, while private sector colleges graduate about 60 pecent, nearly three times as many but this is not a zero sum game. Community colleges should be developed as a legitimate option for citizens looking to grow their education but not at the expense of other options that we know are working. As the Administration continues to note when it rebuffs criticism of its support for charter schools in the K-12 arena, you can fix one without hurting the other.

As a solution the Administration should convene a working group of providers to develop the right debt to student ratio without the devastating nuclear consequences found in the Gainful Employment regulations. Such a working group should also include the business community so that all interested parties can explore creative ways of growing school to career options, something the President says he wants to see happen.

At the end of the day, as we have seen in the K-12 education reform movement, more quality choices for students leads to  a more vibrant, more inclusive educational experience for all. The Obama Administration’s higher education policy needs to be more consistent with its emerging K-12 approach.  We need more choice in all of education, not less.
 
Chavous is a former member of the Council of the District of Columbia and Chair of the Council's Education Committee.