For-profit schools serve a population of adults who may be the first in their family to attend college and who need the flexibility that these institutions afford to work and raise children. Many did not thrive in a traditional college environment. The schools offer certificates in a range of fields — everything from nursing to information technology to massage therapy — and some offer associate’s and even bachelor’s degrees.
The schools have come under fire for their high cost, reliance on federal loans, low graduation rate and weak job placement. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) led a Senate committee investigation into the practices of 30 schools and issued a highly critical report last month.
Steve Gunderson, president of the Association of Private Sector Schools, which represents for-profit schools, took issue with many of the report’s findings and recommendations. Gunderson, a former Republican congressman from Wisconsin, recently spoke to Star-Ledger editorial writer Linda Ocasio about his ideas on how to better serve students in for-profit schools.
Q. Did you learn anything of value from the Harkin report?
A. Yes, I did find something to learn from it. It was a big leap for the senator to say we are an integral part of education. And he talks about identifying and tracking progress for students at all schools.
We would love to have some kind of vehicle to judge academic progress. We would love for Congress to establish one common standard to evaluate all of higher education. That would be fair.
Q. That’s not happening now?
A. The U.S. Department of Education measures success only for full-time young students, right out of high school — not older students returning to college. Our students are almost all adults who attend part time. About 70 to 80 percent actually started at a different college. They seek a more focused delivery around a career.
If we had the right metrics to judge this, absolutely, it should be measured. I don’t think this report was done with bad motives, but it is taking a traditional understanding of college academics and imposing it on a nontraditional delivery system.
Q. What were some of the Harkin recommendations that troubled you?
A. Some of the recommendations would put our schools out of business. I like the idea of providing comprehensive student outcome information. That’s fine. But the schools should not have to reveal confidential school information. The senator wants full access to corporate information. In a competitive market, no school wants to disclose their business strategies.
Q. The report recommends 15 percent of revenue should come from sources other than the federal government.
A. That would eliminate 50 percent or more of our students. Why? It’s simple. The Harkin report even recognized that 96 percent of our students are eligible for federal financial aid. Most of our students are low-income, first-generation college students. Without access to financial aid, they have no chance of attending.
This is not about where our schools get their funding; it is about which students we serve. We should be commended for serving a group of students who otherwise would have no access to postsecondary education.
And the report says no federal funds should be used for marketing, advertising and recruitment. But an adult who is a single mom has no place to go for school information, such as a high school guidance counselor. The schools need more marketing and advertising to reach the potential student body. This particular recommendation shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the business model of this sector.
Q. How would you address the debt burden that students carry?
A. We need to do financial literacy. A number of students don’t know what loan payments mean. Transparency in disclosure will work for everybody.
I also think we should look at the Australian model, which has an income-based repayment program established through your place of employment. They’re eliminating default from the vocabulary. If you’re earning $40,000 a year, 4 percent is deducted from your paycheck. No one defaults, but no one is asked to make a payment greater than 8 percent. They don’t make any payment if they make less than $40,000 a year.
Under the Australian model, if you spend your entire life working in an area that provides less than $40,000 income, you never make a payment.
Q. Other thoughts?
A. The biggest challenge — and it’s a moral question for America to ask — is to what degree are we going to take risks to reach students with multiple barriers to higher education? A student could have no history of higher education in his or her family, could be low-income, a returning adult or a single parent.
We need to start this conversation. We have close to 13 million unemployed, 90 million underemployed. That’s the need. How do we provide access? It could be through philanthropy or private-sector support, redesigning the federal loan programs. Or it could be limiting the student loan to the cost of the program. It’s not one size fits all.