Against ‘Gainful Employment’

Last month, a unanimous Appeals Court ruling strongly affirmed the federal government’s ‘gainful employment’ regulation which requires “career colleges” (including for-profit schools and certificate programs in some non-profit institutions) to show they are preparing students to find good jobs. The Department will now require such schools to demonstrate that their graduates’ loans do not exceed 20% of disposable income – or 8% of total earnings – to be eligible for federal student loan money.

As an Obama administration initiative, the ruling was celebrated as a victory by democrat policymakers and by critics of the for-profit college industry. I’m writing this to offer a dissenting view. I think ‘gainful employment’ is a step in the wrong direction. In reality, GE has little to nothing to offer first-generation collegians and low-income students who seek credentials for higher-status careers and better lives. In fact, the new rules are based in an elitist policy framework in which schools that serve mostly non-traditional students are further inscribed in law and custom as solely utilitarian job training venues that require oversight according to narrow accountability measures whereas institutions that serve wealthier students are tacitly recognized as primarily providing outcomes that can’t and shouldn’t be quantified.

It’s one thing to acknowledge stratification in higher education and to recognize that our society funnels low-income students into lower-status colleges and lower-paying jobs. It’s quite another, though, to celebrate policies that further entrench the divide between the haves and the have-nots. The divide is not only occupational; it is intellectual and cultural. Working-class folks are expected to develop productive skills, while elites are expected to learn habits of mind and ways of seeing and being in the world. The ‘gainful employment’ rule accepts this divide as a given and promotes the notion that the goal of education for working-class people is a job that allows them to make regular loan payments, a paltry outcome that elite parents would never accept for their children.

The class bias of the ‘gainful employment’ policy framework comes into clearer focus when we imagine what it would be like if the Department of Ed proposed assessing elite colleges in the same way. What would happen if the government threatened to cut off Title IV funds to Harvard and UC Berkeley based on their graduates’ debt to income ratio? I doubt very much that democrat policymakers would be as quick to support such a program. Judging the University of Chicago’s outcomes with a single statistic would be scorned as the intrusion of technocrats into some of liberalism’s most cherished realms. All sorts of arguments about the ineffable value of education to develop human beings into citizens well prepared to participate in a democratic society would be marshaled in opposition.

My point is not that we should start treating Harvard like ITT Tech or that ITT Tech shouldn’t be put out of business (it should). The point is to recognize the elitism of the proposition that working-class people go to college for jobs, the rich go to college for an education and that federal regulatory policy should help re-enforce that distinction.

In the fight over how much we’re going to punish schools for the job market outcomes of graduates (as if a college degree could magically produce a job for its bearer in any case), employment rates have never been the point. Instead, what is at stake now is the widening divide between institutions that prepare elite students for positions of professional, cultural and intellectual authority and those that prepare non-elites to take up whatever shit jobs are left over.

We can no longer deny that college by itself does not guarantee much of anything in terms of material advantage. According to the Center for Economic Policy Research, the value of a diploma has been flat for two decades. It turns out that what is really driving the so-called “college premium” is the rising incomes of those at the top, the infamous “1%.” In other words, as the college-educated rich get richer, they skew the average so that it looks like a college degree is the ticket to the good life for everyone who’s ever signed an enrollment agreement (Baker, 42-43).

Education can’t fix inequality, a fact that becomes more clear when we disaggregate statistics by race. A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis finds that the wealth of Black families headed by college graduates “diminished dramatically between 1992 and 2013.” That’s right, for Black families, a college degree is associated with downward mobility. The black-white wealth gap can’t be addressed through education alone. We need economic policies that actually redistribute wealth. Unfortunately, policymakers are focused on educational initiatives that supposedly help individuals pull themselves up by their bootstraps in institutions that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

I’m in favor of reforms that actually advance the cause of equality. But ‘gainful employment’ doesn’t do that because it doesn’t get us any closer to solving the underlying problems. Assuring that working-class kids get working-class jobs (to paraphrase Paul Willis) just re-entrenches a paternalistic interpretation of what education is and who it’s for. Let’s recall that the cost of a fully funded system of public higher education is absurdly cheap, about $15 billion in new spending.

The idea that low-income people should go to college to train for an occupation while real education is for elites is plainly evident in the Appeals Court ruling that upheld the GE regulation.

“It would be strange for Congress to loan out money to train students for jobs that were insufficiently remunerative to permit the students to repay their loans. And it would be a perverse system that, by design, wasted taxpayer money in order to impose crippling, credit-destroying debt on lower-income students and graduates. Had Congress been uninterested in whether the loan-funded training would result in a job that paid enough to satisfy loan debt, it would have created a federal grant system instead of a federal loan system focusing on preparation for gainful employment.”

In affirming the legality of accountability measures for career colleges, the Court did not object to “loan-funded” job training for “lower-income” students. Instead, the judges argued that such a system was only “perverse” and wasteful if it did not lead graduates to jobs that pay “enough to satisfy loan debt.” We should be ashamed to reduce education for anyone to that kind of equation. As an organizer, my goal is to try to be in solidarity with others in the fight for real education. To me, that’s a different position than operating out of sympathy but in a way that does not challenge fundamental structures. People drowning in debt and struggling to make ends meet in an austere world do not need anyone’s sympathy or – I argue – the mere means to repay their student loans. On the contrary, they are the ones who should send the invoice because they are the ones who are truly owed.

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