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A wrong approach to student loan debt

guest commentary by Dr. Kenneth Coon

Editor’s note: Dr. Kenneth Lloyd “Ken” Coon, Sr. was the 15th director of the Employment Security Division (now the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services), serving from April 13, 1981, to February 15, 1983. He was appointed by Gov. Frank White. Coon taught at Webster University for 30 years.

Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.

As the former director of the Arkansas Employment Security Division (now the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services), and a professor of human resources development for Webster University, I have long been an advocate for higher education, and specifically the need for career-focused education and workforce training programs.

Arkansas is fortunate to have a diverse group of institutions of higher education that meet the needs of our citizens across the socio-economic spectrum, including four-year colleges and universities, technical schools, community colleges, and for-profit career focused schools. There is no question that higher educational achievement – in the form of a college degree, associates degree, or training certificate – is paramount in boosting long-term employment prospects for students of all ages, and improving quality of life for themselves and their families.

Providing educational access for lower-income and minority students is of particular importance in that regard, as educational achievement among these students tends to lag well behind the average rate. In fact, The Lumina Foundation recently reported degree-attainment rates for African American students in Arkansas at 20.79%, with Hispanic students even further behind at 12.84% – both of which are unacceptable figures that need to be vastly improved.

To change that concerning rate of achievement, community colleges, technical schools, and career-focused schools have been working to help students attain degrees and important credentials, while also positioning them for a successful entry into the workforce with specific job skill training as well as improved “soft skills.” These schools also provide greater flexibility for adult students who may already have a full-time job and are looking to pursue a degree or advanced degree at the same time. Most of my students at Webster were in this category.

Unfortunately, however, it appears that the Obama Administration and the U.S. Department of Education may soon implement new regulations that could have a chilling effect on career-focused schools and the students that rely on them for their education. The “Gainful Employment Regulation” (GER) currently under consideration, narrowly targets nontraditional, career-focused schools, seeking to protect students from onerous student loan payments.

There is no question that far too many students nationwide are dealing with student loan debt that jeopardizes their long-term financial health. In some cases there are schools taking advantage of low-income students who rely on student loans, with little regard as to how exorbitant loans end up impacting those students’ lives. The Gainful Employment Regulation seeks to address this problem by taking into account the student loan debt that students at career-oriented programs accumulate relative to their salaries after graduation, and restricts financial aid to those programs when that ratio hits a certain benchmark.

While I certainly support the intent of the regulation, it is the unintended consequences that concern me. Simply put, if implemented the regulation could prevent students from getting the education and job training they need, hurting those who need that assistance the most. As written, the regulation will not reduce the debt problem, but will instead discourage schools from serving low-income and working-class students. I also find it telling that the U.S. Department of Education has only targeted this rule towards career-focused schools, and not to all institutions of higher education.

Though its aim is to punish bad actors, the Gainful Employment Regulation when applied will also punish colleges who are doing things the right way. Furthermore, in order to comply, many schools may decide to pursue more affluent students, leaving lower income applicants out in the cold. As the Washington Post editorial board stated earlier this year, implementing the rule as written would “make it harder for minorities, poor people and nontraditional students to get the kind of post-secondary education that might help them improve their lives.”

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Certainly we can all agree that would be a step in the wrong direction.

I hope that the U.S. Department of Education, and our congressional delegation, will take another look at this proposed regulation and consider exactly whom it ultimately will impact. Unless it’s drastically changed, I fear it will be the very individuals they’re aiming to help.

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