DC Shuttle: Regulating For-Profit Colleges, Skills for America’s Future and Other Higher Ed News from Washington

Republican senators boycotted a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) which was called to discuss recruiting practices at for-profit colleges. Ranking Member Michael Enzi (R-WY) said in a letter that “until the Majority demonstrates a sincere willingness to hold fair hearings on higher education, we will not participate in any hearings on this issue.” The administration and HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) have been pursuing increased regulation of the for-profit sector, most recently via the Education Department’s new “gainful employment” rules. The rules would withdraw federal funding from college programs which do not meet standards on student loan repayment and students’ debt-to-income ratio. While the regulations apply to vocation and training programs at any college, many consider them to be targeting for-profit colleges. Pauline Abernathy of The Institute for College Access and Success testified that 95% of for-profit students take out loans and are “at least twice as likely” to default on their loans compared to students at other private and public colleges. Sen. Harkin said that he considers the gainful employment measures to be “a modest first step, but I think it’s going to take a much more aggressive policy.” Members of Congress from both parties as well as industry groups have warned that the rules will lead to fewer higher education options for the underserved and nontraditional students who make up a large percentage of the enrollment at for-profit universities. Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter highlighted the changes to the most recent version of the gainful employment rules, which would suspend federal financial aid only after the standards had been failed three times over four years. “We’re giving career colleges every opportunity to reform themselves, but we’re not letting them off the hook,” she said. The rules will go into effect on July 1, 2012.
On Wednesday, President Obama announced the expansion of the Skills for America’s Future initiative to include new partnerships between private industry and community colleges. “The irony is even though a lot of folks are looking for work, there are a lot of companies that are actually also looking for skilled workers,” the president said. “There’s a mismatch that we can close.” The new partnerships will create mentoring programs, scholarships for engineering students, opportunities for manufacturing skill-development before college, and an online resource center to connect workers with job opportunities that match their skills, among other initiatives. Included in the workforce drive is a new credentialing system endorsed by the National Association of Manufacturers which will award certificates to 500,000 students to help them find jobs in the manufacturing sector. The credential will be applicable across all manufacturing sectors and may be combined with other training toward an associate degree. Administration officials praised the manufacturing sector for its role in the economic recovery, noting that over 230,000 jobs have been created since 2010.

Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher and research arm of Education Week, launched the 2011 edition of their annual Diplomas Count report this week. The report found that the national high school graduation rate was 71.7% in 2008 (the most recent year for which data was available), a significant increase from the previous year’s 68.8%. Education Week officials noted that rapid increases in graduation rates in urban districts had driven the national average up, but rate were trending upward across the country with the exception of certain concentrated areas. The 25 school districts with the highest dropouts rates were responsible for one-fifth of the country’s dropouts overall. Of the New England states, only Rhode Island fell below the national average with a 69.7% graduation rate. Vermont, with 82.7%, had the second-highest graduation rate in the country after New Jersey with 86.9%.

From the New England Council’s Weekly Washington Report Higher Education Update, June 13, 2011. NEBHE is a member of the Council and will publish this column each week.

Founded in 1925, the New England Council is a nonpartisan alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions, and public and private organizations throughout New England formed to promote economic growth and a high quality of life in the New England region. The Council’s mission is to identify and support federal public policies and articulate the voice of its membership regionally and nationally on important issues facing New England. For more information, please visit www.newenglandcouncil.com.

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