HBCU DIGEST: Gainful Employment policy will prove critical moment for HBCU mindfulness in Biden Administration

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Today, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an editorial calling for historically Black college and university communities to support federal rulemaking on gainful employment. It is a rule that was kicked into hyper-drive during the Obama Administration to limit predatory enrollment in for-profit schools, scaled back during the Trump Administration, and is now being revisited under the Biden Administration as a vital element of federal student aid checks and balances. 

Under Obama and Trump, the HBCU community had many reasons for apprehension about how student debt and job earnings would define the value of a degree or care of an institution. Obama’s ED made the rule a catchall that didn’t consider race as a factor in how much debt students take on or how much they’ll earn. From Politico in 2015:

The gainful employment regulation applies to community colleges and public universities, but for-profit programs fare worst under the rule’s key evaluation metric, a debt-to-earnings ratio. The industry, which collected about $22 billion in taxpayer loans and Pell Grants in 2013, says it’s being unfairly targeted, punished by the government for enrolling high-risk students — first-generation, adult, low-income and the like — who are less likely to repay loans but need access to the flexible models that for-profits provide.

Back then, the targeted profile for borrower defense regulation sounded a lot like HBCUs. Many HBCU leaders were worried that the similarities between for-profit schools and Black colleges in student profile and post-graduate outcomes would someday catch up with Black colleges under different political leadership. 

Trump rolled the rule back under the guise of allowing schools of all-stripes to deploy models that would best meet the needs of a changing student profile. An increasing number of adults wanted online degree offerings without the hassle of admission standards, academic prerequisites, and other perceived barriers of student access and free-market enterprise. 

Now Biden is taking his turn at making the concept of low debt and respectable earnings for college graduates a rule by which institutions will qualify to receive federal funding. As of today, the rules on determining predatory practices are aimed squarely at for-profit schools and damage is highly unlikely for HBCUs. 

But the fact that for-profit education companies can draw comparisons with HBCUs speaks volumes about how much farther this administration and those that follow must go to support Black colleges. 

Any rulemaking on ED policy must contextualize college and job access within several critical questions that center HBCUs and the students they serve. How is it that nearly 3 out of every 4 HBCU students qualify for Pell Grant assistance that they do not have to repay yet struggle with managing debt after graduating from schools which are among the most affordable in the country?

How will borrower defense or gainful employment rules account for the fact that many HBCU graduates enter fields which are high impact in community service (secondary education, social work, law enforcement, nursing, civil service) but are not high earning careers for at least ten years after earning a bachelor’s degree? If they have to earn degrees to be hired in these fields, why punish schools for the necessary debt that career credentialing requires but which also pays graduates increasing lower wages?

How does the government better package numbers related to debt and earnings with products like the College Scorecard? The scorecard attempts to tell families how colleges fare in terms of price, post-graduate job prospects, and student success but doesn’t account for the impacts of poverty or racism in the data. 

You can’t have a rule designed to contextually sift bad schools out of families’ college choice processes and pair it with a tool that makes good schools look like bad investments through unfair comparisons. 

The Biden Administration has a great deal to repair in delivering on investment promises and exposure of historically Black institutions. It shouldn’t undo a lot of that work before it even starts with a rule that offers too many opportunities for lousy interpretation. 

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