Education reform in South Florida deserves high marks, with struggling inner-city high schools, once so-called dropout factories, turning into innovation laboratories. According to a recent report in the Miami Herald, the number of graduating seniors has increased even as enrollment has gone down. High schools in Miami-Dade and Broward counties are taking progressive steps to turn more of their students into graduates. This should help the area sustain its impressive gains in payroll employment for years to come.
Unfortunately, misguided public policy may spoil this bright upside. The U.S. Department of Education is in the process of erecting barriers to the type of career education that helps many college students make the transition from classroom to job site. While everyone knows of University of Miami, Florida International University and Miami Dade College, few people realize that 108,000 students in South Florida attend career colleges. These are working men and women, often single parents, more often than not financially disadvantaged.
They choose career colleges because they are looking to master in-demand skills, a quick return to the workforce and the chance to build sustainable middle-class careers. South Florida’s immigrant population, in particular, has found career colleges a path to the middle class.
The Department of Education has other ideas. The Department’s proposed Gainful Employment regulation would close many career-college programs if graduates do not meet an arbitrary set of income and student-loan debt repayment thresholds. The regulation does not apply to degree programs at state universities or state colleges or at not-for-profit private schools, unfairly targeting programs in career colleges and the students they serve.
Career colleges are not taxpayer subsidized and, as a result, charge tuition that reflects the true cost of providing education. Many career-college students have previously tried community college. At career colleges, they succeed because they find the small classes, flexible schedules that let them keep working, hands-on learning, modern facilities and other educational supports they need to complete their academic programs.
The Gainful Employment regulation would harm many of these students by limiting their access to higher education. A report released by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU) finds that the regulation could affect up to 44 percent of career college students. In South Florida, that could close the door to post-secondary opportunity for more than 47,500 students every year.
Career colleges educate 60 percent of all healthcare graduates and 60 percent of all information technology graduates in Florida. Sideline almost 50,000 motivated, skilled and job-ready applicants and the impacts on the Miami area’s talent pipeline will be enormous.
Leaders across the state, including Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Hospital Association and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, have registered their opposition to the Department of Education rule. They are not alone. In Congress, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Florida Reps. Alcee Hastings, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel and Joe Garcia, also oppose the Department’s clear misstep.
Early in his first term, President Obama challenged the nation to recapture its position as a world leader in post-secondary education attainment. The president rightly foresaw that an educated workforce is critical to a globally competitive economy. The availability of such a workforce is especially important to South Florida’s trade-oriented employment marketplace. The Department of Education’s Gainful Employment regulation runs contrary to the president’s lofty goal.
There are, of course, positive steps that could help borrowers better manage student-loan debt. President Obama recently stated his intention to expand the use of income-based repayment programs. Other options include:
• Limiting student loans to educational needs — tuition, books and fees — rather than the total amount students may be eligible to borrow based on federal formulas.
• Improving the budgeting and student-loan repayment counseling provided to borrowers. Students need to clearly understand their obligations and alternatives for managing debt responsibly.
• Leveling the playing field by applying post-secondary reforms to all colleges and universities, not unfairly disadvantaging one sector over others. The Department of Education has turned a blind eye to the fact that in the 21st century, career preparation has become a major expectation of all post-secondary education institutions, not just career colleges.
• Reducing student-loan lending rates. Census data indicate the lifetime earnings of college graduates are over twice those earned with a high school diploma alone. Given the return on investment to the federal treasury, government should craft student-aid policies that encourage college attendance, not allow it to become a risk-laden financial burden.
The proposed Gainful Employment Regulation harms students and businesses. Let’s take an innovation lab approach to student-loan debt.
Curtis Austin is thee executive director of the Florida Association of Postsecondary Schools and Colleges.