Last week, Higher Ed Watch took a look at some of the gainful employment policy questions raised in the over 900 public comments submitted to the Department of Education. While policy discussions will ultimately be the most important considerations as the regulatory process moves forward, it's also important to remember that these issues do affect real people. So today we're looking at what some current and former students at these programs had to say in their comments.
Ambition and hope do not pan out in Wisconsin
For many low-income and non-traditional students, going to college can be a source of hope and a chance for a better life, even in spite of fears about not having succeeded academically in the past. That sense of opportunity is prevalent in a combined set of 13 comments from students who now appear to be enrolled in courses at Milwaukee Area Technical College. These comments almost all start on a hopeful note with a sense of excitement for a better life. Many detail previously unachieved academic successes in these programs--high grade point averages, scholarship-winning essays--the type of accomplishment that shows they are college-caliber material. But then the reversal--a degree with no return, a dispute over further debts, no change in status--that leaves them arguably worse off and in debt. (The original comments have been temporarily taken down from Regulations.gov with a request to remove personally identifiable information, so I created a redacted version here.)
A story from one woman who enrolled at Sanford Brown to become a probation officer encapsulates this emotional roller coaster:
I was so excited about going to Sanford Brown College. I was sold because I was told I could get small class sizes and get extra help if I needed and graduate faster because the courses were 5 weeks long and you went to school year round until you graduated.
I went ahead and took the admissions test and paid $50.00 for it. I was told by the financial aid personnel that I could also write a 500 word paper on why higher education was important and win a $1,500 scholarship. I won the scholarship because of the paper I wrote. I was so excited and proud of myself. I was looking forward to the wonderful future my 3 kids and I were going to have. I was going to finish college and finally have a career which I loved which was helping people. I was assured by all the admissions people at Sanford Brown College that I had made the right choice to attend that college. They all were so friendly and seemed to want this as much as I did.
But it was not to be. After attending from August 2006 to September 2008, the woman believed she had graduated but ended up not being able to do so after a dispute with the institution over whether she still had an outstanding balance on her account. She never ended up finding a job in the criminal justice field and owes $25,000 in student loans and cannot transfer her credits. Now the campus she attended
, which had a 27.5 percent student loan default rate in the last year and charged the lowest income students a net price of nearly $18,000, is shutting down.
Those who went from the highs of success to the disappointing workforce reality pulled no punches on their sentiments. For example, one student in the Milwaukee area who graduated from a dental assisting program at Everest College in 2011 wrote: "My intentions were to give my children a better future by bettering myself through education. Everest ripped that dream away from me and is the reason I am struggling today with a $12,000 loan." A student who finished at Everest with a 4.0 grade point average in the same program had the same reaction, calling her experience the "beginning of a long unfinished nightmare."
Confusion rules the day
Given all the work that's been done to raise questions about some gainful employment programs, it's fair to ask why students are still choosing to enroll in certain ones that already have bad outcomes (see 27 percent default rate at Sanford Brown). The answer, at least partially, appears to be confusion. Lack of clarity around costs, expected return, likelihood of finishing, transfer opportunities, and ability to pass licensing tests whether credits would transfer, and whether they will even be able to sit for the necessary licensing tests pop up again and again in a host of comments. (See for example, this comment about trying to get an animation degree or page 4 of the document labeled "student complaints.")
Confusion can be one way to shift personal responsibility away from the individual and to the program, but it also seems to be a symptom of our opaque higher education system and false quality assurance provided by accreditation. In a working transparent market, concerns about cost, transfer, etc. should not be happening. The fact that they are again reiterates the importance of efforts like the College Scorecard and Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, which try to standardize information to help with comparisons may be some assistance, but are struggling to get widespread adoption.
But better information is not enough unless either: 1) consumers change their behavior and take a more skeptical and less trusting approach to choosing colleges or 2) they have a better quality assurance that the institutions where they can take their aid have been sufficiently vetted to merit a more trusting relationship. Right now, students face the worst of both worlds thanks to accreditation. With the imprimatur of accrediting agencies (and thus by implication the Department of Education), accreditation provides a false sense of security for students that breeds an implicit level of trust toward the institution that may not be warranted. Unlike a mechanic you've never used before, a student trusts her accredited college will charge her a reasonable price and give her a service that works. And she does that because some other group of people have reviewed the college to check its quality. Experts in higher education have signed off on it, so why shouldn't she trust that seal? And so students trust that their accredited institution will offer accredited law degrees in their state--but that's not always true, as a student from Iowa found out when he tried to get a law degree from a program whose lack of recognition from the American Bar Association meant California was the only state in which he could become a lawyer. Or they might assume that their credits could be used at colleges beyond the one they are currently attending., which was not the case for many students who tried to take their coursework from proprietary institutions to Milwaukee Area Technical College.
Solving this issue of trust can be done one of two ways. First, Congress could change the requirements around accreditation to compel these agencies to actually set clear standards for outcomes and results--including things like having necessary programmatic accreditation--which would likely result in closing some institutions and accreditors for poor performance. Or, we could go the opposite way and acknowledge that accreditation is not a meaningful indicator of anything and students should not assume that just because a college gets federal student aid that means they should assume it's any good. The former is extremely difficult politically. The latter is not only hard to accomplish but would make the path into college even more confusing for low-income students that currently have to trust and rely on their financial aid office for help navigating Federal grants and loans. Either way this issue indicates more must be done to think about not just what information consumers use for their decisions, but also how they interact with the colleges they are considering attending.
Does this really require a college credential?
Also implicit in the trusting attitude of students is the assurance that program will be what it says it is--training that will provide them access to a job. Now in any system, some programs will be better than others and there will always be a few duds. And commenters did identify some that appeared to be not very good--students discussed outdated or insufficient equipment (imagine learning how to work with braces on half a mouth) or instructors without sufficient content knowledge. But assumed in all of those comments is the idea that the program would have been better had those deficiencies just been corrected. Never would a student assume that the degree itself is fundamentally not reflective of how the fields they are preparing for actually operate. Yes one student who attended Sanford Brown in the Milwaukee area found out that misalignment problem was exactly what her program suffered from:
The majority of companies hiring for Billing have on the job training for people who have been hired by the company including Aurora Healthcare. ... The HIPPAA, JCAHO and Medical Terminology courses are being given as on the job training as free computer based learning courses. Positions in Coding for hospitals are impossible to get into without years of experience. The Certificate I received has not been useful to me and is not worth the $17,000 I now owe.
The commenter raises a point that goes beyond the idea of whether a program merits the price charged and debt incurred to instead ask is it even aligned with fields or occupations where postsecondary education really provides an advantage for entry and advancement? In the case of the coding program, she suggests that even an extremely good program would not have been worth it because that is not how the coding industry works. This isn't a derivative of the "bachelor's degree holders working in restaurants" argument, but rather the idea that even someone who gets employment in the relevant field may not actually need that credential. It's a challenge to the idea that if a college or university offers a program it is by definition "postsecondary."
Signs some schools are taking steps to improve--is it enough?
To be sure, there's a lot of comments that do no paint a flattering light of the programs and the institutions that offer them. But there are some rays of light suggested in the comments. Some institutions have shut down poor-performing programs, while others have closed entire branches that did not appear to be succeeding. Outside the comments, the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University have been among the large institutions to get noticed for offering trial periods and experimenting with new curricula to boost quality. In these cases, schools do appear to be responding to market forces in positive ways. The task ahead then is to figure out how to keep driving those kinds of changes so that stories of future students can focus only on the hope and not the disappointment and regret that followed.