Back to school season isn't just for elementary schoolers or 18-year-olds excitedly heading off for college life. Millions of adults will also enroll in school this fall to continue their education. While their precise reasons for pursuing higher education are as unique as their DNA, a common hope underlies the vast majority's intentions – acquiring knowledge and skills that will open up future opportunities in life and the workforce.
Unfortunately, if the Obama administration has its way, non-traditional students will have fewer options for continuing their education moving forward. The administration has proposed a "gainful employment rule" that threatens to render students in many for-profit colleges ineligible to access student loans. Analysts estimate that this rule could impact nearly 3.4 million students, more than half of which come from low-income households and are the least likely to find suitable opportunities at traditional colleges and universities.
The administration justifies these new rules as necessary to discourage student loan default and prevent students from racking up unpayable debts while pursuing degrees that won't immediately lead to higher earnings. Certainly, there is reason for concern that many students overpay for higher education programs that provide scant value. The U.S. should have a robust debate about how to reform higher education policies and infrastructure to encourage greater efficiency.
Yet that's not what the administration has done by advancing this gainful employment rule. Rather, it singles out for-profit higher education programs geared to non-traditional students and adult learners for assessment under arbitrary standards that don't necessarily reflect the schools' value. The gainful employment rule zeroes in on the percentage of graduates who default on student loans and graduates' loan-debt-to-earnings ratio when making determinations on which programs deserve support. So if graduates aren't earning enough in the years immediately following completion of their degrees then that program is cut off from federal student loans.
These metrics leave out much important information that should go into a fair assessment of the value provided by a school, including the type of students that are being served. Private sector, higher education institutions disproportionately serve the at-risk student population – students who are more likely to be older, members of minority groups and from lower-income backgrounds than their peers at public and nonprofit, private colleges. It's not surprising that such students also tend to borrow more money and earn less immediately after obtaining their degrees. Yet that shouldn't be an excuse to cut off access to educational opportunities for these students.
And for-profit colleges fill important educational gaps by providing career-oriented training programs in disciplines such as automotive repair, electrical and aeronautical engineering, computer networking and graphics, web and software design, accounting and a vast area of health care professions such as anesthesiology, veterinary medicine and nursing. While high pay may not come immediately, many of these fields are growing employment areas with the potential for lasting, solid earnings.
Parents paying $30,000-a-year tuition for their offspring to pursue dance and art history degrees at elite liberal arts colleges may envy those who have something more solid to show for their years in school. And indeed, a certain snobbishness seems to underlie the administration's instinct to crack down on for-profit colleges that provide more technical and job-oriented training, while ignoring jaw-dropping examples of waste at traditional nonprofit colleges. Who is to say that there is more value in a degree in anthropology or women's studies obtained from a taxpayer-supported college or university than a medical technician certification from an associate program at a for-profit school?
And in fact, as the Washington Post noted in an editorial, many supposedly prestigious programs from traditional, elite nonprofit institutions, such as Northwestern University's journalism program and George Washington University's law program, would fail the gainful rule test if it were imposed on them. Indeed, the Washington Post concluded, "The likeliest effect of the rule would be to make it more difficult for poor Americans to earn a secondary degree."
All students should look closely at the results produced by higher education institutions before they begin borrowing money and paying tuition. The administration also ought to consider reforming the student loan program to make sure all students, regardless of the type of school they enroll in, take on only reasonable debts in order to discourage default. Indeed policymakers at all levels of government should try to make higher education more efficient, so taxpayers aren't supporting bloated campus administrations and ever-higher tuition. All universities should transparently report the true costs of obtaining degrees and recent graduates' results so that students can make informed decisions about education.
Yet the Department of Education shouldn't create one set of rules for one kind of school and rob the at-risk students they serve from educational opportunities they sorely need.
Carrie Lukas is the managing director at the Independent Women's Forum and editor of "Lean Together."