When you dig deep enough into anything – particularly something controversial – you’re likely to come across bits of information that can raise a few eyebrows even among the most loyal to a cause. The Department of Education’s Gainful Employment rule is a perfect example. Indeed, the further you look into the data, methodologies and metrics, the harder it must be to stand 100 percent behind the rule.

Take, for instance, the rule’s focus on short-term earnings for college graduates. Under the proposed rule, the Department would measure students’ ability to repay their loans on the salaries of graduates 18 to 30 months after graduation – the very first few years of their professional lives. In addition to ignoring research that has documented increases in graduates’ income over the course of their professional career, the metric blatantly disregards the different, and we think more sensible, requirements of regional accreditors and state regulators, which have required proprietary colleges to focus on the long-term career success of students – not their immediate earnings.

In fact, New York’s regional accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, and the New York State Education Department (NYSED), have urged proprietary colleges over the past 50 years to transform from vocationally oriented job training schools, focused on the earnings of students the first year after they graduate, into academically based degree programs that are geared toward life-long learning and a lasting approach to graduates’ career success.  The U.S. Department of Education approved the programs designed to achieve these goals and, for the past several decades, has left the responsibility of ensuring program quality to accrediting bodies.

Now, however, the Department has usurped the role explicitly assigned to accreditors. In doing so, it has overstepped the three-part regulatory system that the Department itself put in place, requiring colleges to do an about-face. Indeed, the institutions that were once urged by state and accrediting agencies to focus on long-term career advancement will now be unfairly penalized for doing just that.

Surely the Department doesn’t want colleges that have successfully evolved as institutions of higher education – and developed broad-based programs with long-term career goals for students – to undo their progress. But, by focusing on the short-term earnings of graduates, rather than long-term career success, that is precisely what the Department’s GE rule would do.

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