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CHAVOUS: Cutting fuel to the economic engine

Banning federal loans for training-center students is counterproductive

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 29, 2010

All Americans are focused on the state of the economy and President Obama's economic recovery program. A key element in our recovery is job creation and increased worker wages. But while the president constantly talks about the need for more jobs, not all of the administration's policies are helping to address that need.

For example: Mr. Obama's Education Department just published (for public review and comment) a new regulation that could deny educational opportunities to older, working students. These are people who are working hard to achieve a higher level of education and training so that they will be eligible for better-paying, more stable jobs. Their hard work regularly leads to personal economic success. Without access to higher education, countless economic success stories will never come to fruition. If this regulation is finalized as it is, it will deny thousands of Americans new jobs that are critical to our nation's economic well-being.

To appreciate the power of education in improving the economic outlook for any given person, consider the story of Geronimo Pena from Corpus Christi, Texas. Geronimo had been working the graveyard shift in hotels and motels for a dozen years and knew he had to make a change if he wanted to earn a better salary and improve his overall career path. He found a program that enabled him to continue working while pursuing his education. With the help of federal student loans and professors who understood the unique needs of a working student, Geronimo was able to earn a medical assistant diploma from the Career Centers of Texas. A diploma in the growing field of health care enabled him to find a new job with daytime hours and increase his salary by $600 a month.

The positive economic ripple effect of tens of thousands of people like Geronimo increasing their earning potential is profound. With better cash flow, Geronimo can be a more active consumer. He might become a new customer at a local small business. More customers enable a small business eventually to hire more staff, which means job creation for others.

There are career-focused schools like Career Centers of Texas all over the country that have played a critical role in economic success stories like Geronimo's. They offer flexible schedules for working adults and help them find good jobs when they graduate. Most of the students at such schools use federal student loans. Without loans for those students, an educational economic engine will fall silent.

I am sure the president's Education Department staff is not consciously trying to exclude working-class people from higher education. Their arguments against loans for students like Geronimo, they say, are about the schools that these students are choosing and about dollars and cents. Schools like the Career Centers of Texas, they say, are producing graduates with lower incomes, while students who attend more traditional colleges and universities are a better financial risk for the government's money. Those students, education elites argue, tend to land in higher-paying jobs and therefore are more able to pay off their student loans.

Is Geronimo making as much money as a younger student who just graduated from a state university or nonprofit liberal arts school? Maybe not. But was he able to pay back his student loans? Absolutely. In fact, it only took him a few years.

The public comment period on the new regulation presents us all with an opportunity: to tell the Obama administration that economic success stories like Geronimo's should be encouraged, not discouraged, because higher education is a good economic investment for all. The Education Department should govern by that truth, or the president could unwittingly slow down the economic recovery we so desperately need.

Kevin P. Chavous is a former D.C. Council member, an author and national school reform leader. An early supporter of Barack Obama, Mr. Chavous served as a member on the Education Policy Committee of Mr. Obama's presidential campaign.

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