USDoE: Sacrificing Lumina’s Attainment Goals at the Altar of Elitism

There it was in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s 4/21 edition: an article entitled “College Attainment Rises, But Lumina’s 60% goal is Now Harder to Reach.” The essence of the article concludes that the growth rate is up, but behind projections; the traditional population is declining; adults need to be placed squarely in the focus of populations to be served; and that significant changes are needed in the traditional educational model to better serve under-performing Hispanic and African American students.

As is usually the case, Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, is on the mark with his reactions, predictions, and cautions which accompany the report. What appears to be over-looked, however, is that beyond the problems with hitting the goals cited, there is another event occurring simultaneously which will take us as a country in the opposite direction of the attainment/completion goals that both President Obama and Merisotis are promoting.

That event is the Gainful Employment Rule proposed by the United States Department of Education. Justified with unsubstantiated assertions about the programs affected, this rule would regulate programs at many proprietary and community colleges out of business. It will depress the student population and the completion agenda metrics, while exacerbating workforce needs in the various career areas and populations where we need to succeed. Adults and marginalized populations, who have historically been the most difficult (and expensive) students to advance, must be our targets for success. Our purpose must be to educate them for entry into desperately-needed professional and pre-professional areas, like K-12 teaching, early childhood education, health care, and other human service occupations. However, the Gainful Employment rule will jeopardize programs in which tens of thousands of these very candidates participate.

We know that the public treasury at the state and local level cannot pick up the burden created by the reduction or elimination of proprietary programs. And we know that the community college programs under pressure face low wage entry standards that call successful completers “failures” if they fail to meet established debt to earnings ratios. In fact, both President Obama and Andy Rosen, the EVP of GrahamHoldings (Kaplan’s parent company), would both have been classified as “failures” by the rule as it is currently written because the former went into community organizing and the latter clerked for a Federal Court judge. Absurd? Absolutely. Accurate? In this “Alice-in-Wonderland” world, yes.

I believe there is an incipient elitism behind all of this – the application of a logic that would fit Brown or Cornell, but that bears no resemblance to the services needed or the results attained at the Maricopa Community College District or other open access institutions, public or proprietary.

Make no mistake; this rule will forever end the possibility of meeting the completion goals that Lumina and the President have championed. It will also depress the number of eligible job applicants for the very positions most in need of new workers, thus accelerating the decline of services to those who need them most at the local level. Furthermore it will hurt and/or close some proprietary schools and programs at community colleges.

I have one modest proposal to mitigate this impact while still rooting out institutions that are too expensive, drive up student debt, and fail to produce completers who can go to work and succeed on Day One. Let’s agree that institutions that are regionally accredited and those approved by the USDoE nationally, at the very least, be removed from the rule’s coverage, just as virtually all state and private colleges and universities have been

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