As I was reading the online New York Times today, I ran across Tamar Lewin's September 12, 2011, article, "Student Loan Default Rates Rise Sharply in Past Year." Lewin notes that there have been larger numbers of students failing to make their required student loan repayments, particularly at for-profit colleges, which largely serve low-income students and are the fastest-growing portion of the college population. Lewin makes mention of gainful employment regulations and of the ability of students to opt for income-based repayment plans, which does ameliorate the depressing tone of the article and makes it a bit more effective a piece of reporting.
Since the article alludes to gainful employment regulations, they do reappear in my mind. And I do not think that they are a well-founded idea. Consider: we bemoan the failing state of education in the United States, saying that we have lost something in our halls of learning from where we were twenty years ago and more. At the same time, we make of those same schools more vocational training programs--saying that the point of college is to be able to get a good job--than the kinds of schools that we claim to think that they should be. I work at a technical school, yes, and I hardly believe that training in vocational fields is a bad thing, but training in vocational fields tends all too often comes at the expense of the kinds of critical thinking and social acculturation that is cited as being the thing missing from "the good old days" (the kinds of things that "useless" humanities courses teach). Do not complain about the lack when you are enforcing it.
Consider also: gainful employment regulations hold colleges accountable for the employment of their students in the years following graduation (or other departure from the schools). Are the colleges expected to hire every one of their graduates? For it is only their own hiring practices over which they have any control whatever; they have no ability to compel private firms to take on any given employee, or indeed any employee at all. Why, then, should we hold colleges to account for activities and decisions that they have no ability to carry out or determine? Is this just? Is this right? And for those students who leave college for reasons other than their graduation...they quit, even if for a completely sensible reason. Do we expect the military to take care of those among its personnel who fail to complete basic training not because of a grave injury sustained but because they cannot complete the course of instruction? Who muster out because they give up and stop trying? Do we expect any other private firms that offer training and instruction to their employees to ensure that the training offered is put to good use after the employee quits? Again, is this just? Is this right?
Consider a third: for-profit colleges do have problems, yes, and they damned well ought to be held to account for their recruiting practices; they ought to have to be honest and offer full disclosure about financing options. But they are also staffed by people, many of whom are dedicated to their jobs and who have an honest, sincere desire to help the students under their tutelage become better workers, better citizens, and better people. They do not mislead their students; they do not lie to them; they instead do everything they can do to help their students improve themselves and their lives. And they will be the ones who suffer when the funding cuts called for by gainful employment regulations go through, despite that they are not the ones who do wrong and they are not the ones who cause problems. Once again, is this just? Is this right?
Consider a fourth: when the funding is cut, the predominantly low-income students who are served by for-profit colleges, who turn to those schools because they lack the academic acculturation required for success at most public and non-profit private institutions, will be unable to attend those schools--they need the financing because they cannot otherwise afford to go to school. Many (very many) are in need of substantial remediation, which most public institutions are unable--and many non-profit private, unwilling--to provide, but which are abundantly offered by the for-profit schools. Gainful employment regulations will result in many of the students most in need of the services offered by for-profit colleges losing access to them, and since it is the case that "you need a degree to get a good job," that denial of access tends to permanently fix those students among the lower socioeconomic strata. They are condemned to poverty and toil because of things beyond their own control, despite their best efforts and hard work. Is it right? Is it just?
Yes, I do work for a for-profit college, and so yes, I have a vested interest in seeing for-profit schools do well. But just as having a pot call a kettle black does not mean that the kettle is not, in fact, black, that I am the one who says what I say does not mean that what I say is untrue. Indeed, that I work for one--as is not now and in few if any cases has actually been the case for those who have written and approved the gainful employment regulations--lets me know what does actually go on at them. And that is the same as is true for most any school: teachers teach, students learn, and we work towards making better the world in which we live.