Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Gainful Employment for Graduate Schools?

Sometimes to really understand a story, you have to read it against another one.

This week, a couple of stories came out that didn’t seem all that surprising individually, but that clanged together in an unexpected way.

The first noted that Ivy Tech, the statewide community college system in Indiana, is coming under state scrutiny for low graduation rates in certain workforce training programs.  

The second was about a judge upholding the newer version of the “gainful employment” regulation.   That regulation, which applies mostly to for-profit colleges and community colleges, punishes colleges (or programs) of whom a significant number of graduates don’t make enough money to pay off the student loans they took out to get the training.

In both cases, institutions that provide services to the riskiest, lowest-income students are required, with varying levels of realism, to prove their worth.  Meanwhile, institutions that serve wealthier students have the benefit of the doubt written into law.

For example, I read recently that 40 percent of outstanding student loan debt comes from graduate study.  Yet graduate programs are exempt from the gainful employment rule.  Offer a one-year certificate in Accounting to train bookkeepers?  Prove your worth.  Offer an open-ended Ph.D. program to pour still more adjuncts into a saturated academic field?  No problem.

To which I say, hmm.

If I were an enterprising sort without a conscience, and I wanted to make serious money in higher education, I’d avoid the low-income students; there’s just too much scrutiny.  Instead, I’d go after the high end.  You can charge more, and you’ll get a free pass, so to speak.

Ivy Tech may or may not be doing a good job; I honestly don’t know.  But I’m not at all surprised to hear that the graduation rate goals legislators set for the programs were divorced from reality.  Given an exclusively high-risk population, even a brilliantly-run program will struggle to produce the kind of numbers that flagships, with exclusive admissions, produce as a matter of course.  Students with preparation gaps and complicated lives are harder to get through than students who are well-prepared, undistracted, and attending full-time.  That is not a reflection on the quality of instruction in either case.  Judging the former by the standards of the latter is setting up programs to fail.

I’d flip it around.  Want to hold programs accountable?  Great; start with the most expensive, and work your way down.  Make M.A. and Ph.D. programs -- and law, and MBA, for that matter -- prove their worth first.  That’s where the serious money is.

Alternately, hold state legislatures accountable for ensuring that community colleges and public four-year colleges are appropriately funded to achieve the increasing number of tasks they’re being asked to achieve.  Performance funding assumes a base level of funding high enough to enable good performance in the first place; absent that, it’s merely punitive.  Sometimes, in the rush to look tough, legislatures lose sight of that.  A good, strong Federal push to ensure that they don’t lose sight of that would make it possible for performance funding to reflect actual performance, rather than student demographics.

None of that is likely, of course.  In this climate, we have to get tough on people without money, so people with money can feel better about themselves.

That clanged.  It always does.