When you think about gauging the value or quality of a higher education program, graduation rates seem an obvious part of any equation attempting to measure program success. Indeed, the fact that such a metric is not reflected in the current Gainful Employment rule is one of our harshest criticisms, as outlined here. We’ve commented on their importance as a success barometer in this blog earlier.

The goal of Gainful Employment is, after all, to ensure that colleges offer quality educational programs that lead to gainful employment without excessive debt. We wholeheartedly agree with that aim. The disconnect that APC has with the Department of Education’s approach, however, comes down to the standards and metrics by which the Department will seek to accomplish that crucial objective.

As written, the GE rule ignores traditional measures such as program completion and job placement rates to focus on financial targets, specifically student loan debt relative to earnings solely during the first few years of their professional careers. That doesn’t sound right to us. Look at it this way: under the current draft of the regulation, a program that enrolls thousands of students but only sees a dozen graduate could still pass the proposed rule since it only applies to programs with at least 30 graduates. As well, a program can pass the rule if it has a median debt of zero even if very few students graduate or find employment. How does that serve students’ best interests — or taxpayers’ for that matter?

Given our staunch advocacy for graduation rates as a valid measure of program success, we read with great interest the story about the forthcoming college-rating system posted today by The Chronicle of Higher Education discussing “Why Colleges Don’t Want to Be Judged by Their Graduation Rates.” The piece examines targeted institutions’ concerns that the way the formula is configured is impractically defined, overlooking great swaths of student success stories because they don’t fit the formula’s parameters. As a result, the flawed metrics will lead to a “score” of sorts that will unfairly skew the public’s perceptions of their programs’ merit. Ironically, similar allegations could be made by proprietary colleges about the GE rule and yet that’s the very reason we want graduation rates included.

Equally notable was a comment left by one of the article’s readers, who suggests that there are parallels to the arguments made in the article by the broader higher education community and those made in recent years by the for-profit sector:

“…(P)oint for point this article echoes the talking points that the for-profit colleges (who largely serve part time and returning students) have been stating for the last several years. Could it be that the warnings from this sector about the cudgel being swung by the Dept. of Ed. will be indiscriminate have born out to be true? Many readers of the Chronicle have been happy to jump on the bandwagon to support any and all regulations from Dept. of Ed. that may impact the for-profit sector without realizing that they would soon be under the same scrutiny…”

We would welcome clarification from the Obama Administration on why it makes sense to incorporate graduation rates to assess program value in one circumstance but not the other. It certainly seems more than a bit contradictory from our perspective.

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