Friday, May 7, 2010

The most poignant testimony I heard during my 12 years on the council of the District of Columbia came from a 23-year-old single mother of a 5-year-old boy.

The young woman was nervously testifying against the potential closure of the University of the District of Columbia. In recounting her story, she talked about her struggles getting to and from her job, her son’s day care and night classes at UDC. She stated that she would not have been able to take college classes without the benefit of loans and that the loans offered hope for both her and her son’s future. The young woman tearfully described her daily routine, which included long bus rides and longer days. She admitted that some days seemed unbearable, and on those days, she would cry freely in front of her son during the bus rides home from his day care. She openly showed those emotions, she stated, because she wanted her son to know that a college education is “worth struggling over.” That testimony took place nearly 10 years ago.

Today, more than likely, the same young woman, under similar circumstances, would be taking college classes at one of the several for-profit proprietary colleges that increasingly are educating nontraditional, economically disadvantaged minority students. Many of those students are older working parents who rely on loans to further their education.

Under a proposal being considered by the Obama administration’s Department of Education, those students’ access to loans would be severely impacted. The so-called gainful employment regulations purportedly would assess the vocational and most course offerings at for-profit institutions by linking the prices those schools charge and the debt-service ratio of their students to federal financial aid. In other words. the department is raising the loan-qualifying standards for the population with the most acute loan needs.

The Education Department has been saying that it must institute this change to protect students from taking on too much debt. Recently, however, the chief architect of the strategy, Deputy Undersecretary Robert M. Shireman, gave public comments that hinted at the department’s real motivation behind the gainful employment proposal. Mr. Shireman directly attacked for-profit colleges for their growing reliance on federal aid from their students, suggesting that those schools are receiving too much federal money. Obviously, the proposed regulation would dramatically shrink such aid. Mr. Shireman and the department’s motivations, however, no matter how dubious, are not the issue. The reality is that the proposed regulation would reduce the ability of nontraditional students to enroll in postsecondary programs that offer high rates of return in terms of increased earnings. It also would immediately impede our nation’s ability to produce a qualified work force.

How so? First, the new gainful employment regulations would sharply curtail the potential for the neediest students in the nation to receive financial aid. That result would be in conflict with the president’s stated goal of increasing the number of Americans who have some form of postsecondary education.

Second, the regulations would force proprietary schools to drop many of the programs currently offered to those neediest students. Notably, the regulations would penalize students interested in pursuing careers in high-demand fields such as teaching and nursing, which have relatively low starting salaries.

Finally, the proposal would disproportionately hurt those most vulnerable in our society, who rely on such educational programs, and it would choke off the supply of skilled workers in fields that play an important role in society. Job opportunities would be lost for hundreds of thousands of economically disadvantaged students, and tens of thousands of private-sector college employees could lose their jobs. Our nation desperately needs a qualified work force, but the best solution we have for accelerating the pace of access to higher education and relevant skill enhancement is the very one we are disabling with this proposed regulation.

To be clear, the proposed gainful employment regulations would decimate the college student-loan program and limit many students’ access to college. Without those loans, the vast majority of the nearly 3 million students enrolled in these programs would not be able to attend college. More than 500,000 of those students received degrees in 2008, which instantly enhanced their careers. All of that progress and future potential would be lost instantly.

At a time when we are bailing out Wall Street and Detroit, we should not be walking away from our commitment to our most underserved citizens, who see education as their gateway to the future. Like the woman I heard testify almost 10 years ago, many of those students struggle each day just to take their college classes. Let’s not add to that struggle by taking away their hope.

Kevin P. Chavous was a member of the D.C. Council and an adviser on education to the Obama for President campaign.

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