As the Department of Education prepares to release its final draft of the Gainful Employment rule, the proprietary sector’s most ardent critics have been increasingly vocal, generating a barrage of negative press intended to sway decision-makers’ – and John and Jane Q. Public’s — opinion. At times, said coverage has adopted an undeniably simplistic approach, decrying all proprietary colleges on philosophical grounds without any scrutiny of their performance or this complex and highly punitive rule.

A handful of stories, however, scratch beneath the surface and seek to offer a more objective view. One such story appeared recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Chief Washington reporter Kelly Field’s article (“5 Flaws in the High-Stakes ‘Gainful Employment’ Rule”) provided a comprehensive analysis of the GE rule and how its metrics render it incapable of achieving its intended goal: empowering students.

One of Ms. Field’s key observations is that programs for which fewer than half of the participants borrowed would be exempted from the rule — potentially pardoning programs with substandard outcomes. Simplifying the issue at hand adeptly, Ms. Field presents the following example for consideration: “Program A has 40 graduates, and 21—just over half—are borrowers. Program B has 100 graduates, and 49 are borrowers. Program B may have more troubling borrowing patterns, but only Program A fails the test.”

She adds that, paradoxically, GE would also allow institutions with abysmal completion rates to pass the debt-to-income metrics and remain immune from regulatory repercussions. Why? Built into the regulation is a caveat that permits programs graduating less than 30 students over a four-year period to slip through the net. Noting how this rule is antithetical to the Department’s purported objective of shielding students from substandard institutions, Ms. Field calls attention to the worrisome fact that GE in its current form “would reward—even provide incentives for—low completion rates.”

And, citing the findings of Marc Jerome, executive vice president of APC member Monroe College, Ms. Field demonstrates how the “transition period” of four years, which would allow colleges to utilize the debt levels of more recent completers judged against the earnings of older graduates, allows institutions little opportunity to improve their outcomes. In short, one might contend that the GE rule seeks to blithely eradicate an entire sector without giving those under fire a fighting chance to right their wrongs. (Note: Monroe College would in fact pass the Gainful Employment rule’s metrics, but nonetheless believes they are inherently biased).

Kudos to Ms. Field for this detailed and thoughtful piece, which points to many of the same criticisms that APC and its members have voiced, including perhaps our biggest one: while students should be protected from predatory institutions, the Gainful Employment rule that the Department has conceptualized is simply not fit for the task at hand.

We only hope that, as more reasoned voices contribute to the chatter around Gainful Employment, it may inspire sensible conversation about how to refocus regulatory efforts that foster optimum outcomes for all students, across all sectors.

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