Will the Department of Labor kill Obama's college completion push?
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In 2011, President Obama announced an audacious college completion goal: By 2020, America would again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. This call to action was made with good reason. By 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require a college education. Students with bachelor's degrees will earn approximately $1 million more in their lifetimes.


But if higher education is the great equalizer, graduate education is a game-changer. A master's degree adds an additional $457,000 in expected lifetime earnings. From 2012 to 2020, jobs that require a master's degree are expected to grow by 18.4 percent. Sadly, far too few minority and first-generation students receive graduate degrees to meet that demand, largely due to obstacles like undergraduate degree completion and student debt. As of 2012, only 9 percent of students in the lowest income quartile attained a bachelor's degree, and 88 percent of Pell Grant recipients had student loans, averaging $31,200 per student. Moreover, a recent report reveals that there is a 14-point gap in national completion rates for Pell Grant recipients and non-Pell students. It's no surprise, then, that in 2014, only 24.2 percent of all first-time graduate enrollees were racial or ethnic minorities.

Why? Helping nontraditional graduate students succeed requires that colleges and universities behave differently. This means new roles for faculty, who are expected to leave the ivory tower and bring the classes to the students — delivering instruction on-site with employers, or in ad hoc classrooms convenient to working students. It means a greater dependence on adjunct faculty who have the sort of real-world experience adult learners value, and can impart the skills and competencies that employers demand. It also means entirely new positions within higher education: coaches, mentors and tutors who help working students find their paths, and succeed.

At its core, higher education is a labor-intensive business. Yet in an ironic twist, new proposed rules coming from the Department of Labor may undermine the president's college completion agenda.

As has been widely reported, the Department of Labor is in the process of issuing new rules that govern which employees are exempt from overtime pay. Sources indicate that the proposal will increase overtime pay to some 5 million workers that are currently excluded under the law.

Consider the impact at Concordia University, a 150-year-old, private, Lutheran University in the suburbs of Chicago. Concordia enrolls over 5,000 students, including 4,000 graduate students. One reason for that growth is our institution's commitment to serving primarily first-generation graduate students, including students from communities and populations historically left out of graduate education.

In our ground-based, face-to-face programs, we teach students in over 60 separate locations in the Chicago area. We do this in order to ensure that the opportunity to attend graduate school is as convenient and cost-effective for working adults as we can make it.

To do this, Concordia employs almost 600 full- and part-time faculty, including approximately 150 full-time, tenure-track faculty and over 400 non-tenure track, part-time and adjunct faculty, sometimes referred to as contingent faculty. We have approximately 230 full-time staff employees and several hundred student-workers that serve as graduate and teaching assistants.

Not-for-profit organizations, and small private colleges and universities in particular, pay salaries that are significantly lower than market average. This is not to say that our industry does not pay reasonable living wages; it does. But salaries and wages are lower in an attempt to keep tuition levels down and maximize student services. Any government action that significantly increases personnel costs will necessarily result in higher tuition, at a time when the economy and students cannot afford such increases.

The new Department of Labor rules would exempt from overtime a base salary amount annually indexed to 40 percent of the average of all exempt salaries ($50,500, in year No. 1). Today, university faculty are exempt from these provisions. Eliminating this exemption would cost Concordia an additional $6 million per year and eliminate work for approximately 300 adjuncts.

To offset these increases, Concordia would have to raise tuition by a minimum of 25 percent — perhaps more — and the cost increase would put graduate school beyond reach for many of our students. With average full-time graduate school tuition and fees already hovering around $15,000 per year and first-time professional programs costing an average of approximately $25,000 per year, an additional cost increase would reinforce the barriers that prevent minority and first-generation students from accessing and completing graduate school.

It would be tragic for an administration so clearly committed to higher education success to rob institutions of vital elements of our student support workforce by promulgating these new rules. It's also unfortunate because this administration has made great strides to make sure agencies cooperate, such as their interagency coalition on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, among other working groups.

In today's world, there are many pathways to earning a degree, and we need our partners in federal agencies to work with us, whether they reside in the Department of Education or the Department of Labor.

Jandris serves as the dean of the College of Graduate and Innovative Programs at Concordia University Chicago. In this role, Jandris oversees several graduate programs and teaches classes on subjects ranging from leadership to education law. Jandris was the founding dean of Concordia-Chicago's College of Business, and the Thomas P. Jandris Center for Innovation in Higher Education at the University of Minnesota was named in his honor.