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Can Consensus be Found for the Future of Postsecondary Career Education?

Can Consensus be Found for the Future of Postsecondary Career Education?


Written from CECU Plenary Presentation, “Can We Find Consensus: The Future of Postsecondary Career Education” with Doug Lederman, Inside Higher Ed, Ben Miller, Center for American Progress and Keith Zakarin, Duane Morris

During the closing session at the 2018 CECU Annual Convention & Expo, “Can We Find Consensus: The Future of Postsecondary Career Education,” panelists Ben Miller of the Center for American Progress and Keith Zakarin of Duane Morris discussed the path career education needs to take. Doug Lederman, co-editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed, moderated the discussion, using his experience of covering higher education for the past 30+ years, to lead the discussion regarding the appropriate role of the private career sector.

The Inside Higher Ed website published federal data which showed a 20 percent shrinkage of the private career sector in the past five years. The reduction is shown in the number of institutions, the credentials earned, and the enrollments.

What do those lower numbers mean?

The first question Lederman posed asked what do these lower numbers actually represent. Is it A: The sector has been unfairly attacked by critics in the prior administration but is poised to recover close to its previous enrollment levels; B: The sector may be smaller but is stronger and poised to grow in its contributions to the students and economy, if not really meaningfully in size; C: The sector is mortally wounded and will keep shrinking in size and relevance; or D: None of these overly simplistic answers get to the heart of the matter.

“As I look at where the sector is today, I do think it is in a better place than it was before and I think a major reason is because of the regulatory and enforcement work that took place over the last several years,” Miller said.

He admitted that may be an unpopular opinion, but that gainful employment really pushed the notion of “thinking about the return on investment, and not just where student demand is.” He felt that making data transparent along with pairing the threat of loss of federal aid, moved things forward and made the sector stronger. He further contended that this is now a point of opportunity, evidencing the past cycles where the for-profit sector grew too large, so government interaction worked to shrink it again. The pendulum has swung back and now “the question is can we stop that cycle from repeating” and do something so another bust cycle doesn’t occur in 10-15 years. “This is the chance for the sector to step up and say ‘these are our values, this is what we’re going to do to change the behavior,’” Miller ended with.

Zakarin felt that higher education as a whole is hurting. He agreed that the attacks and increase in regulation, as well as enforcement from the Obama administration, impacted the sector, with a number of large operators leaving. He believed the atmosphere has become toxic, which hurt enrollments. But he felt this is just part of the problem, not the crux of it. “It’s part of an overall substantial decline in the sense of higher education, not just in this sector, except perhaps in the prestigious Ivy schools that are very selective and have no problem filling seats.” He felt higher education as a whole has gone down and will continue to decline, and this reason is an overall questioning of the value of higher education, something he’d not experienced before. He brought up three factors that are causing this. “Part of it is a very steep increase in the cost of tuition, far beyond inflation. Second, there is a failure in higher education to respond to demand of accountability for outcomes. Third, we’ve got a robust economy with lots of jobs available,” Zakarin explained. He ended with the belief that all higher education, but the private career sector, in particular, will need to adapt and innovate to continue to be relevant and successful.

Can profit be connected to education?

Miller would be curious to understand more about how profit affects a school’s quality of education, but he really didn’t feel it was a deciding factor in how good or bad a school was operated. He’d never heard anybody say that profit had a negative impact on education, either at the gainful employment ruling or from anyone at higher levels at the department, so he doesn’t think most people believe that.

Because the transparency isn’t there with private colleges like it is with public ones, it’s harder to know how debt is changing behavior and if pressure from outside financial ownership may be affecting the quality of education. “Because we don’t have the 990 that we give to nonprofits, it makes it a lot harder to actually know what is going on there to see the private equity elements of things and what role they play,” Miller said. “I actually think it’s worth looking at more because I think you can clearly operate a for-profit college in a good manner, but when you have other things involved we’ve seen problems with those types of schools.”

Zakarin didn’t believe the profit factor has anything to do with harming the education of an institution.

“I don’t think that the presence of virtue is dependent on tax status; I think that’s a characterization that needs to be rejected,” he contended.

Furthermore, Zakarin believed that the existence of the profit motive actually drives the sector and adds value, rather than harms it. Without the motivation of profit, there is no incentive to put capital at risk, he believed, citing an example. “Think of Registered Nursing programs…the amount of money to put in a sim lab and other various equipment to create the clinical relationship to put in a program like that, let alone the enormous salaries for Directors of Nursing and all the preceptors, is gigantic. Public systems have not responded well to that for a variety of reasons,” Zakarin said. The ability to make a profit convinces people to put it at risk. On the public side, there’s no incentive to put capital at risk.

Zakarin also brings up how nonprofits and some for-profit companies use outside companies to do many of the services, which makes the two become even more similar. The behaviors of some large nonprofits such as the University of Southern New Hampshire and Western Governor’s University have behavior very similar to the large for-profits, showing that tax status doesn’t really have an impact on behavior. “Ultimately, institutions have to take in more than they spend, whether it’s a for- or a nonprofit. Those incentives to either nickel and dime education with investment and faculty would be present no matter what the tax status,” Zakarin ended with.

Are our data, tools, and goals sophisticated enough to measure performance and outcomes to judge the quality of education?

Miller felt the conversation around outcomes should be about the things we’re most worried about and making sure there are systems in place to track them, rather than just saying a measure isn’t working, so we’ll just use a different measure. A negative aspect of outcomes is the time it takes to see if it works or not. “The result is students become sort of experiments, because you have to wait and see what happened along the way before we register those outcomes,” Miller said, adding that we lose sight of the upfront work that could have been done to improve things at the beginning, citing an example about accreditation from a member of the DC Charter Board. “He said the more we did a better job up front on really querying and challenging people on their business model and their plan, and really being firm and saying no to people, it became easier on the backend because there wasn’t a lot of energy spent chasing down bad outcomes,” Miller explained. He ended by saying if it’s all about outcomes, it can take a while before issues are dealt with, when if things were dealt with upfront, such as “why aren’t you sufficiently capitalized, what is your plan for growth, how are you going to ensure that you’ve got an ethical code of conduct in place,” a lot of the problems can be avoided in the first place.

Zakarin agreed, stating we have to be introspective and challenge ourselves by asking what are the behaviors we’re doing which lead to the creation of measurable value in time.

He felt the sector can do a better job of trying to pick programs and things which lead to student success and lead to values. He used an example of a Pharmacy Tech program his school was considering putting in, since it’s very profitable. However, when he went to the local chain stores to ask if they’d hire graduates from that program, the stores explained they train their own. So even though the program is profitable, there would be no jobs available, so they didn’t start the program. They didn’t need to be told by an accreditor that it’s a bad idea and shouldn’t be done.

The accreditors have “tightened up the financial standards, and have increased their level of competency in evaluating where schools are on a year-to-year basis, whether or not they meet the federal composite scores,” Zakarin explained, adding how some states like California have even imported some of the federal standards. He has also seen some of the accreditors get stronger on changes of ownership as well, citing ACCSC’s part A and part B, where the identity, structure, and strength of the acquirer are challenged.

Miller continued with the question of how schools can hold each other accountable. He feels that hasn’t been done as much.

Zakarin believed the process is evolving, stating the national accreditors have a stronger front-end look at substitute program changes and new program apps. Where before a couple statements were all you needed, now the accreditors are looking into the process with more detail. “It’s a constructive cycle,” Zakarin said.

How should accountability look going forward and should there be a difference between vocational/occupational and everything else?

Zakarin believes strongly in being transparent, whether it’s an occupational program or not. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that because occupational outcomes are facile and easy to measure…at least over time that the consequence ought to be removed for federal aid. “But shouldn’t we consider a regiment…and we’re seeing this now with the potential revision to the GE rule, a regiment of really rigorous transparency and let the market sort it out,” states Zakarin.

Miller agreed that transparency is important, but he doesn’t believe it’s enough. He believes there needs to be a potential loss of aid as well.

“One of the challenges is if we put it all on transparency, we have put the onerous so much on the student,” Miller said. He thinks this is unfair to the student, especially if it’s a student who doesn’t have the background where he/she would understand graduation and placement rate calculations. “I think as long as there’s a federal imprimatur from the debt, you need to have actual consequences attached to it,” Miller further explained. He believes the threat of transparency can change behavior, but the threat of losing aid is a stronger deterrent. He went on to discuss the difference between saying we should have accountability measures applied everywhere is different than saying we shouldn’t apply them anywhere until they apply everywhere. Good measures are needed, but we can’t wait until it’s everywhere, because students “are enrolling, taking on debt, many are succeeding and some aren’t.” He ended with stating the problem needs to be dealt with now, rather than waiting years down the line for it to get through Congress.

What can we make of for-profit to nonprofit conversions?

Zakarin doesn’t believe these conversions are very concerning. He explained that the critics believe a school is subject to the regulatory regime targeted at for-profits, and by converging they’re somehow escaping consequences. He believes this discussion ignores the fact that the lines between for-profit and nonprofit operations are increasingly blurred. The conversions are hard to do and there are very few of them. “They don’t present an operational risk or negative consequence to students. The fact that you’re in 90/10 or not in 90/10 doesn’t have much to do with how you operate,” Zakarin ended with, believing it’s a surrogate for other issues and that the underlying argument is different than the one on the surface.

Miller didn’t fully agree, stating there are certain things about the conversions that feel like warning signs. He gave an example of a for-profit becoming a public college but then exempting itself from open records law, which seems worrisome. He felt that schools that are converting need to be upfront about their reasons for doing it. “I was struck that one of the latest ones to convert, the press release announcing it didn’t explain in a fairly compelling manner what the actual benefit for the quality of the education or the quality of students really was,” Miller said. He asked the question if it’s not improving the education quality, why are you doing it, which should be an open question. Miller ended by stating that schools should be clear about what the actual driving force behind converting is for them.

What do you [Miller] suggest people running postsecondary career institutions do differently?

Miller believes ensuring admissions are ethical and considerate is important. Being highly selective doesn’t make sense. “I’m not talking about SAT scores, but we should ask reasonable questions [to find out] if the person is in a situation in his/her life where we think he/she has a reasonable expectation of finishing this program and succeeding with it,” Miller said. Some students might be turned away, but this idea states schools are taking students who are in a place where they can succeed. Another point he brought up is the price of tuition, feeling it’s really important to move away from as much debt as possible “which will improve the investment and make it more attractive.” Miller continued with advising schools to be willing to self-police, and when there are problems, to be willing to say “these are not the values that I stand for.” This shows there’s a drive not to repeat issues and to show the seriousness behind the institution’s operation.

How can we ensure we don’t cycle again into excessive growth and misbehavior followed by tougher regulation and cleansing?

Zakarin doesn’t think bad behavior necessarily caused the tougher regulations. He agreed that over-enrollment impacted things during the Great Recession, but he believes schools have learned a lot over the past eight years and have changed their processes to reflect that. Admissions is conducted very differently than it was 10 years ago. Tuition has also stayed the same or gone down, which is better than every other sector of higher education. He continued by stating schools have increased dramatically the amount they spend in career services, with self-imposed outcomes as well as externally imposed. He added that the accreditors require external verification now as well.

Zakarin ended with adding a couple of points that weren’t brought up. First was the transferability of credit, because students shouldn’t have to pay for the same thing twice. He believes it should be a requirement. “The harm to that has been the hegemony of the regional accreditors and regionally accredited schools refusing to recognize credits. I think that’s a terrible disservice to students and the community of higher education in general,” Zakarin said. The second point Zakarin brought up was the increase in looking at creative ways to deal with competency-based education, stating the traditional classroom setting might look different over time. He brought up an example from the military, where in order to advance in rank, you had to reach certain competencies on a check sheet. “I think having these badges and goals and specific competencies that are marketable is an area of innovation. We continue to evolve in this area and have a much greater amount of self-discipline, both to outcomes and behaviors,” Zakarin ended with.

The 2019 CECU Annual Convention and Expo will be held in New Orleans, LA from June 2-5, 2019. For more information visit http://www.cecuevents.org/convention/


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