Obama's "Gainful Employment" Rules For Colleges And What It Means For Science
    By Hank Campbell | June 14th 2011 06:21 PM | 5 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    You've seen the advertisements on television; schools that market heavily with dubious promises of how wonderful the job market is, but then students who incur student loan debt to get those degrees - loans which are unlimited since the government in the early 1990s said higher education meant more money - find that in a market where everyone has some sort of degree or another, it doesn't mean much.

    Now the government wants to solve the problem it created by making some schools at least show their classes will have some value, requiring "career college programs to better prepare students for 'gainful employment' or risk losing access to Federal student aid."

    Obviously President Obama can't go after squarely progressive universities so these rules are tailored instead to go after shorter-term schools instead of four-year institutions, but the standards should apply anywhere.   Should any university take money from anyone for a Ph.D. in Fine Arts, knowing that student will likely be one of those 13,000 Ph.D.s who will be janitors or waitresses next year?   

    The U.S. Department of Education, as usual, seems to be tackling the wrong problem.  Yes, student loan defaults at those smaller private schools are higher but the families are also poorer and they are students who were not successful in high school so they aren't getting scholarships - the very people a Democratic Congress in the early 1990s said would benefit most from unlimited students loans.   Capping student loans back at the old $2,500 maximum would drive university prices back down and let more students get a real education.

    Focusing on one type of school, rather than the core problem, would seem to be unfair restriction of trade.   
    Institutions will now be required to disclose their total program costs, loan repayment rates, graduates' debt-to-earnings ratio and other critical consumer information to help students better choose the gainful employment program that's right for them. 
    How many graduate science programs could pass that test?   And Jennifer Wheary at Policy Shop argues that journalism graduate programs would likely not pass either.   We produce 6X as many Ph.D.s annually as there are jobs for them in academia so the private sector should have always been the first consideration.    The implication is that these career schools are less ethical for taking all the students they can get but does anyone not know of a university degree mill that does the same thing?

    A new Ph.D. in science likely has substantial debt and little chance of paying it off if they stay in academia.  Given the number of Ph.D.s produced per year it is no surprise post-doc positions pay little.  It would make sense to take a skeptical look at all academia and not just career college programs.


    So will this open the flood-gates for even more no-win-no-fee lawyers ??

    The requirements are actually quite modest - they get three years to show they have value - so only the really bad schools will fail to meet the standard, but my point was obviously that state-sponsored degree mills are churning out political science majors, basket-weaving, womens' studies majors and who knows what else that have practically no job market outside academia, so it seems unfair to penalize a school that is producing paralegals or whatever else.    Practically everyone working in a Starbucks has a degree.    There is something wrong with that.
    It's degree inflation. Things that don't require a college education to do (eg clerk work) still require a college degree for no real discernible reason. The value of a college degree has been diluted severely, part because there are too many students and not enough jobs and part because there are too many degree choices, which muddies the waters considerably. On the other hand, we have medical degrees, which are a tightly controlled commodity and this reflects in doctors' salaries and gainful employment (very few docs are out of work). There has to be a workable middle ground, but it's really difficult to say what that middle should be.

    However, is the solution removing those extraneous degrees? Should we only allow business and science degrees in schools? That simply creates a huge influx of science and business students with no real job placement afterwards. We will be back at square 1 with people with degrees in Biology, Fiance and Economics doing work at Starbucks. The problem isn't school, it's the economy. We've crushed our middle class systematically for the last 30 years and it's finally hitting us. There are only so many service, support and clerical jobs you can put out before the industry is saturated and those jobs are no substitute for jobs involved in production. Production jobs scale; you need more workers to put out more product. These replacement jobs don't scale as much. A single IT support tech can handle a dozen computers as easily as he can handle one computer.

    Right, because they made a degree a progressive issue - fairness demands everyone have one - it is solely a barrier to entry and provides no advantage at all, as a high school diploma once did.  Lots of people will still easily get jobs but it will be based also on individual initiative or the friend of a friend or personality, as it always.  The people now working at a McDonald's would have been working there anyway, except without $30K of debt.

    When the Soviet Union collapsed, the US east coast found itself with hundreds of thousands of Russian Ph.D. waiting tables and driving cabs.   Degrees were just time there so they were meaningless and they had better lives working in a restaurant here than being an unemployed Ph.D. there.
    Interesting post (and an interesting discussion). As a community college instructor and someone carrying a great deal of student loan debt because of dual disciplines, this is relevant on both the professional and personal levels. 
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