One of the most frequent criticisms leveled against proprietary colleges by critics, ranging from senators to mainstream media reporters, is that their admissions’ offices have routinely misrepresented job placement rates, loan terms and future career prospects. Such questionable behaviors, committed by a handful of unscrupulous institutions, led the Department of Education to consider how egregious practices might be curbed. The result? The polarizing and highly contentious Gainful Employment Rule, which was released on October 31.

As we’ve asserted before, we support the motives behind Gainful Employment, and believe that all colleges should prioritize students’ best interests. And that’s why we have encouraged the formulation of a rule that is not only fairly applied to all higher education institutions, but is based on solid research, expert input and tried-and-tested metrics.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case thus far. A little digging has uncovered worrying cracks in the Department’s methodologies and ­– ironically – misleading statements. Although a March 25, 2014 Federal Register Filing proposed discretionary income and annual earnings rates based on “expert recommendations”, a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by APC recently forced the Department to admit that there were no supporting documents to demonstrate that any meetings with sector experts had occurred to discuss the use of these rates or the proper passing thresholds for these rates.

This is not the first time that the DoE has cited questionable or non-existent data to further its own objectives: as we mentioned in an earlier blog, an APC-commissioned report by the Parthenon Group revealed omissions in the data that the Department used when promulgating its spurious contention that student demographics do not impact outcomes.  Ostensibly, the Department achieved its desired conclusion “by inexplicably omitting various student characteristics from its analysis – characteristics that the Department’s own previous studies had firmly established were important factors in measuring students’ success.”

Additionally, despite repeated requests, the Department has failed to release data that demonstrates how public or nonprofit colleges would fare under the rule’s metrics and thus validate their rationality.

To us, it is of the utmost concern that the Department, while purportedly seeking to protect students from deceptive practices, has been found to engage in similar behaviors by failing to provide clear, honest information about the basis for the proposed rates. If it is serious about ensuring the best outcomes for students, it might be time to return to the drawing board when it comes to Gainful Employment, and to develop realistic measures that reflect program quality rather than an ideological bias.

Given the widespread and potentially devastating impact that the rule in its current form could have on students at proprietary colleges – many of whom are low-income, minority individuals – it is imperative that we get this right. There is simply too much at stake to let this rule go through as is.

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