Since taking the helm of APC as its Executive Director in March 2013, Donna Stelling-Gurnett has learned a lot about the state of higher education in New York and equally important, the productive contributions of APC’s 23 proprietary college members. We recently caught up with Donna to ask her a few questions about what she’s observed during the first 18 months in the proverbial corner office.

  • Why were you drawn to the Executive Director (ED) role at APC?

Having previously managed the day-to-day activities for a number of other member associations, it wasn’t the “newness” of the role so much as the uniqueness of APC’s compelling mission that made joining this organization so inviting. New York State’s proprietary colleges are providing exceptional educational opportunities for student populations that are vastly underserved by other institutions of higher education, but weren’t — and still aren’t — appropriately recognized for it. I saw a tremendous opportunity to partner with APC’s member colleges and help them to have a stronger, more unified voice on the critical issues that impact their students.

  • What are you most surprised to know today about proprietary colleges that you didn’t know on your first day?

When I first joined APC, my understanding of proprietary colleges and their role within the higher education space was admittedly rather limited, and because of that, I did not have the same appreciation for the caliber of the programs they offer. I certainly did not know that many are degree-granting institutions accredited by the same organizations that accredit the programs at neighboring Ivy Leagues or that, in many cases, their program outcomes and graduation rates often trump those of local community colleges. APC member Monroe College, for example, graduates approximately 80 students for every one that graduates from two neighboring community colleges. I also wasn’t aware of the vast amount of misinformation and misconceptions that have taken root concerning proprietary colleges, including within the education community. We saw that first-hand with Washington’s well-intended but wide-of-the-mark efforts on Gainful Employment.

  • Speaking of Gainful Employment, how great a concern is that effort to APC and its member colleges?

We are understandably very concerned about it. There are far too many strong programs providing solid outcomes that could be in jeopardy if the current draft of the rule passes. They’re at risk not because their programs are weak, but rather because the ill-advised metrics the DOE has latched onto as its benchmarks for passing the rule. We shared our concerns with the DOE and general public, and stand firmly by those objections and our assertions that the students the Department strives to help will ultimately be hurt by this rule if the final draft reflects the path the last draft is on.

  • What isn’t a part of the GE conversation right now that you think should be?

Programs at well-respected public universities and colleges can’t pass the proposed Gainful Employment metrics. That alone should be a clear red flag that something is rather amiss with the DOE’s intended approach to protect students. But since the Gainful Employment rule won’t apply to public colleges, nobody feels compelled to address the issue. For whatever reason, public colleges get a free pass; others have more recently been awarded similar “sacred cow” status, as reported by Kelly Field at The Chronicle of Higher Education. If the DOE’s intentions are to protect students from getting saddled with education loans because the programs they attend don’t provide real value — and by that they mean that they are not likely to give the student the education and training that will lead to meaningful jobs with ample earnings that could offset the loan repayment requirements —  then ALL programs should be beholden to them. After all, how can you defend looking out for some students but not all? Shouldn’t the underlying principle apply across the board? It’s illogical that their institution’s tax status is the primary deciding factor for which students the DOE will “protect.” This disconnect should factor loudly in the national conversation, yet few are willing to stand up to the DOE and say “hold on a minute…”

  • The Department of Education is expected to release its final Gainful Employment rule in the next few weeks. What are your expectations?

It would be a most-welcomed event for the DOE to announce they were going to stop this speeding GE train in light of the persuasive evidence suggesting they need to re-evaulate their stance, but I don’t think that will happen. We will just need to see where they come out and figure out the best next step from there. Hopefully the considerable push-back they’ve received from myriad educators, independent research organizations, and other concerned voices about the misalignment between the rule’s published goals and the metrics they’ve settled on to deliver them will have had a favorable impact.

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