Over the last three years, the U.S. Department of Education and Congress have put the heat on for-profit higher education institutions for practices that exploit students with high financial need. New federal regulations on for-profits -- referred to in education circles as the "gainful employment" regulations -- seek to protect students and to increase the likelihood that they will be able to find employment and repay their loans after completing certificate or degree programs. Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, has been particularly vigilant for this cause.
As a not-for-profit, four-year and graduate residential university, my institution is not directly affected by these federal rules. But they do bring a critical issue to light for all of higher education, for-profit and not-for-profit alike: What are we doing to prepare and enable our students to secure and succeed in an increasingly competitive and dynamic workforce? Are we doing enough? Are new models needed?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for adults 18-29 years old reached 12.7 percent in July, with rates as much as 9 points higher for minorities. These statistics should sound an alarm across the nation. While penalizing for-profit universities for programs that produce little results and high debt for their students might be an effective short-term solution to protect students from being overloaded with debt, we need a broader national vision that isn't just defensive.
Punitive measures from the government and "business as usual" from our nation's colleges and universities just won't cut it. Students need a new deal -- a promise of access that can actually lead to a strong future in our nation's workforce.
With the state of our economy, the question is even more urgent for students and their families: What will a degree get me after I graduate? In the salad days of job opportunity, university administrators could afford to wax a bit more vague about this. For many traditional academicians, this question might even seem out of place. After all, college is about imparting knowledge, the collective inheritance of humanity -- not about something as mundane as a job.
That fact is that it is about both. Our students want knowledge and work. I see this mindset in the kind of students we attract at my university. Almost one-third are first-generation college students. Their parents did not attend college, but they nurtured that dream for their children. These students expect that attending college will lead to a good job, and they consciously chose an education with programs and experiences structured to help make their dreams a reality.
Several years ago, representatives of our state of Maryland's public and independent colleges and universities joined forces with the Governor's Workforce Investment Board on a listening tour, dialoging with business leaders around the state about the kinds of programs and initiatives that prepare students to work successfully in their companies and economic sectors. This tour was extremely productive and helped to build the kind of conversation and collaboration that higher education, business, and government need. This process needs to be national, continual, and at the top of the president's and Congress' educational agendas.
President Barack Obama's "Skills for America" initiative is a step in the right direction. By encouraging partnerships between community colleges and industry, students will be able to connect their educations to careers, many in new and emerging industries. This initiative should also move beyond community colleges to four-year institutions, public and private, that are serving many of the nation's highest-need students.
What else can higher education do? Diverse employment internships should be a near mandate across college curricula; federal and state employer advisory boards for higher education can update academia on the changing and emerging workforce skills for industry; and we should create career development practices that mirror the rigor of academic curricula, giving students and their career mentors a formal structure for the acquisition, application, and assessment of career aptitude and skills.
Instead of punitive measures that might ultimately limit access and discourage students and working adults from achieving a degree, we need creative measures from leaders in education and the top policymakers that ensure degrees -- and the college experiences that support them -- remain relevant in an increasingly dynamic and global workforce. Career education should not be sidelined; it needs to be front and center in our strategic institutional plans and national economic policy.
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