Recently, we addressed the folly of how the Gainful Employment rule’s potential threat to a well-respected proprietary college such as the School of Visual Arts (SVA) due to the fact that SVA graduates – artists pursuing creative careers – will be hard-pressed to achieve income levels right out of college that will pass the rule’s proposed debt-to-earnings rates metrics. The underlying theme is simple: it is prejudicial to define “gainful employment” strictly by the size of a paycheck.
Another case in point: A graduate of the finest culinary school in the country who starts work at a restaurant will generally make more money in the early years as a server at a restaurant than she or he would make as a line cook in the brigade toiling away in the kitchen. The position in the kitchen, however, will provide invaluable experience and technical training that will further the graduate’s career. Under which scenario is that culinary graduate truly gainfully employed? We argue it’s the latter. Indeed, most people probably would share that view, but the GE rule would force the opposite conclusion.
Another way of evaluating the illogic of the proposed debt-to-earnings rates is to look at how other specialized colleges and universities would fare if the GE rule were applied to ALL higher education program – which, if the rule made any sense, should be the case. In addition to prestigious medical schools, some of the country’s top law schools would be in danger of closure, including institutions such as the Georgetown University’s Law Center (GULC).
At GULC, the average debt load for those who borrow to fund their education stands at an eye-popping $145,631. But GULC graduates, like those of many other law schools, are not exactly entering the workforce with six-figure salaries to be able to manage their student loan debt. Indeed, data released by the American Bar Association demonstrates a worrying trend among law school grads: 13.7 percent are unemployed, and another 26.8 percent are considered underemployed. Yet no one is accusing these expensive institutions of not preparing graduates for “gainful employment.” Why shouldn’t this merit a federal investigation?
The simple truth is that not everyone wants to be a lawyer, doctor, investment banker or other high-paid professional. Some students would surely point to other variables, besides their paycheck, if asked what makes their chosen career valuable for them (in other words, makes it “gainful” to them personally). It hardly seems presumptuous, for example, to think that the SVA Fine Arts graduate would rank the freedom and challenges of creative expression high on their list. But, under the GE rule, they would not be allowed to make such a choice for themselves.
What policymakers fail to realize is that the concept of “gainful employment,” which might seem concrete, cannot be quantified by those in their D.C. ivory towers who are inclined to crunch a few arbitrary numbers to reach their predetermined goal. This one-definition-fits-all approach to defining “gainful employment” might seem like the easiest way to tackle the issue on paper, but as soon as you think about how it will be implemented in the real world, the results become messy indeed. For students and schools both. The students that the Department of Education says it to protect from bad programs deserve better.