What legacy?

During the negotiations around the omnibus appropriations bill, the Obama administration made crystal clear their hostility to private sector education – when they informed Congressional leaders that any language in the bill delaying the implementation of the gainful employment regulation until Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act was ”non-negotiable.”  Since the completion of the negotiations, the White House has claimed victory for stopping so-called “ideological riders” that were to be attached to the appropriations bill.  The administration considers the gainful employment regulation part of Obama and Secretary Duncan’s legacies and went to great lengths to protect it.   

Unfortunately, the costs of this blind ideology will likely define them in ways they will regret. 

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This administration is increasingly defined by its hostility to the private sector.  And the data shows it.  While they should be pursuing public-private partnerships, they continue to pursue big government in ways that curb the ability of the private sector to create real jobs, real incomes and a real chance for entrance into America’s middle class. 

The Pew Research Center recently released a report that shows for the first time in decades there are fewer Americans in the middle class than the upper and lower classes.  A similar look at the nation’s gross domestic product showed average growth of 5.7 percent prior to the great recession, and only 3.9 percent growth in the five years since the recession.  Compare this data to China where an 8.1 percent average annual growth over the past five years is described as a recession. 

Who is most hurt in this ideological effort by the current administration?  It is the average American who seeks upward mobility, but is blocked.  Two recent reports by the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce describe the real legacy of this president.  In an August 2015 report “Good Jobs are Back” they write, “The downside of this recovery is that middle-wage jobs have not fully recovered:  In spite of the 1.9 million jobs added in the recovery, middle-wage jobs remain 900,000 jobs below their pre-recession employment level.” 

A new report this December, “Six Million Missing Jobs,” expands further by stating, “There are still 2 million jobs for workers with some college or an Associate’s degree than there would have been if the recession had not occurred.”  The nation’s recovery from the recession has left behind the nation’s middle class.   

Private sector higher education has existed in our country since the beginning.  Most of our institutions were created to train workers in a specific community with the skills needed for a career.  The sector grew – perhaps even too much – during the recent recession as institutions practiced the concept of open enrollment, allowing students to enroll regardless of their academic ability and personal commitment to complete the course of studies. That was wrong. 

But today’s postsecondary career colleges are very different.  Total enrollment is down half a million students since the height of the recession.  Yet, total academic awards are up 21,000.  This is because today’s career colleges are focused on outcomes.  They are the only sector of higher education to actually have reduced tuition and fees over the past two years.  Because the sector serves low-income, first-generation students, financial aid has always been an essential bridge to student access.  Yet, the total federal financial aid to students in this sector has decreased by $12 billion over the past five years. 

The sector has changed.  Unfortunately, this administration has refused to acknowledge such change continuing to pursue ideological battles of the past.  What is the potential result?  America will neither prepare disadvantaged students with the skills for success in the American economy nor equip American businesses with the skilled workers essential for their future.  For example, our nation faces a shortage of 45,000 commercial truck drivers – with little relief in sight.   

Ideological debates are appropriate in America’s political campaigns.  They have no place in the governance of a nation when the statistics demand constructive collaboration, compromise and cooperation.  The nation’s future demands growth in postsecondary career skills.  The legacy of this President will be in cutting off access, opportunity and outcomes for the very political constituency he professes to want to help. 

The very day that he won his latest battle on gainful employment, the operator of the nation’s most recognized culinary arts programs, Le Cordon Bleu, announced that it would close those campuses by the end of 2017. 

What legacy?

Gunderson is president and CEO of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities.

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