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.

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