Remember the Obama administration's promise to make higher education more accessible by expanding Pell grants and student loans to more students through the $787 billion stimulus? Apparently, the administration is having second thoughts -- at least when it comes to allowing students to pick their own schools.
New regulations being contemplated by the Education Department would place new restrictions on loans going to students who want to use them at for-profit schools. The administration's claim is that for-profit schools exploit low-income -- often minority -- students by promising them high-paying careers, on which they can't deliver, and saddling them with debt. But is that really the issue?
For-profit schools occupy an important niche in our higher-education system. They provide training in everything from traditional academic fields to information technology, health care, criminal justice, and automotive repair. According to recent estimates, enrollment at for-profit career schools has increased 20 percent during the recession, as many workers, young and older, realize that they don't have the skills to compete in an increasingly technical and demanding labor force. And with many states cutting back on community college budgets, for-profit schools are sometimes the only alternative to get the training students want and need.
Tuition at for-profit schools averages about $14,000 a year, according to the College Board -- not cheap, but midway between the range in average college tuition between private colleges ($26,273) and public ($7,020). But the difference is that many for-profit career colleges require only a one- or two-year commitment to provide practical job skills, not four. But like all educational institutions, for-profit schools can't guarantee success. It's up to the students to stick with the program, learn the skills, and be diligent in pursuing jobs after they've earned their degrees.
But the Education Department is now contemplating regulation changes that would make it more difficult for students to use federal loans to attend for-profit institutions. The new rules would limit the amount of money a student could use to repay loans to 8 percent of income -- but the way the government will calculate income is a problem. Income will be defined in a debt-to-earnings ratio dependent not on the individual's actual income but on the Bureau of Labor Statistics job code associated with the student's diploma or degree at the 25th percentile of wages in that field. But this formula assumes that after graduating, the person will remain at the lowest quartile of earnings throughout his or her working lifetime instead of assuming wages will rise over time. Under the proposed regulations, students would be ineligible to use federal loans for programs that cost more than the artificial debt-to-earnings ratio dictates.
It seems like the folks in charge of writing the regulations are prejudiced toward for-profit schools. These institutions already meet accreditation rules and must disclose graduation rates and other information to ensure that they are legitimate educational institutions, not mere moneymaking scams.
Schools that advertise on TV and radio and provide education to working-class adults are anathema to the education community elite -- who not only didn't attend such schools but don't know anyone who did. But I've seen firsthand the important role for-profit schools play in providing opportunity. One of my sons earned his Microsoft certifications in a for-profit school and has gone on to a very successful, steadily advancing career in IT in the 10 years since.
The idea that everyone must attend a four-year college in order to succeed is nonsense. Education is important -- and improving skills to compete in a more demanding work environment often makes the difference between those who keep their jobs in a recession and those who don't. But it shouldn't be the federal government's job to decide which school a student chooses. The for-profit market is growing because there is an increased demand for the kind of education it provides. Shouldn't the Education Department devote its resources to expanding opportunities for Americans to receive schooling, not restricting them?
Linda Chavez is the author of "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal." To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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