By Michael K. Frisby, Los Angeles Sentinel
WASHINGTON—African American civil rights, business and political leaders are opposing U.S. Department of Education regulations that would limit access to career colleges for many minorities by cutting off federal loans and grants at some of the for-profit learning institutions.
Among those voicing concerns about the regulations are Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, founder/CEO of Rainbow PUSH Coalition; Willie Gary, one the nation's leading trial lawyers; Harry Alford , President and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce; Randal Pinkett, Chairman and CEO of BCT Partners; and 12 of the 39 voting members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
"There are widespread concerns that this regulation will have a devastating impact in African American communities, where black unemployment is nearly twice as high as whites," said Milton Anderson, President of Virginia College's branch in Jackson, Mississippi. "Schools, such as Virginia College, do an outstanding job teaching skills that are needed for promotions and new jobs. The government should not close the door to opportunities for people willing to learn additional skills and training that will help them better provide for themselves and their families." Mr. Anderson, who is a spokesman for the Coalition for Education Success, noted that 43 percent of the enrollment at career schools, or 1.2 million students, are minorities.
The so-called "Gainful Employment" rule would make entire programs ineligible for federal loans and grants if they fail to meet a broad new standard that has little to do with academic quality. The proposal would require all programs offered at career colleges and trade schools to meet a specific definition in order to qualify for federal student financial aid. It would base eligibility on the ratio of student debt to potential student income following graduation. It does not take into account that most students benefit from the long-term benefits of their careers and not just the immediate increase in income.
In a September 15 letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Rev. Jackson wrote that the Department's approach will hinder the access of minority students to higher education and make it even more difficult to realize President Obama's goal of leading the world in the percentage of college graduates by 2020.
"I am concerned that the proposed rule casts too broad and too general a brush on many institutions, some of whom are doing an excellent job at serving economically disadvantaged and minority students," Rev. Jackson wrote. "For many of these historically underserved students, educational options must be more accessible than those that typically are offered by traditional higher education institutions if they are to be meaningful."
Moreover, in an op-ed published in black newspapers this month, Mr. Gary maintained that it is "extremely disappointing" that the Education Department seeks to implement a policy that could cripple operations at career schools without adequately considering the negative impact on students who need these institutions. "The Education Department has proposed rules that will harm all the schools, and all the students who may want to attend these institutions," Mr. Gary wrote. "This is bad public policy. Clearly, the Education Department's approach is elitist, if not outright racist."
Further, Mr. Gary asked why the restrictive regulations have not been proposed for the nation's leading liberal arts colleges and universities or even at state colleges where students with the similar socioeconomic backgrounds have similar default rates on their student loans. "Instead, the proposed regulations are aimed at institutions whose the graduates don't often become CEOs, doctors and lawyers," Mr. Gary said. "Career schools produce nurses, auto mechanics, computer technicians and other skilled workers, whose services are often overlooked and devalued in our society."
In a September 9 letter to Duncan, Mr. Pinkett wrote that the Education Department had ignored the positive role that career schools play in producing skilled workers for the nation's businesses, and in channeling women, minorities and adults into better jobs with higher wages.
"Data show that 44% of career college students are in high-growth fields compared to only 18 percent for public colleges and universities and 13 percent for private institutions," he wrote. "Seventy-six percent of career college students who completed an award program in 2005 were employed directly after graduation. How can the Department restrict access to this training when employers in the coming years will be depending even more on workers with the skills taught at career schools?" Clearly, career schools are making a difference in the lives of many African Americans.
Eric Brown, 44, recently retired from the Navy after 24 years. Mr. Brown, who lives in Hampton Roads, Va., attended job fairs on the East Coast, but was unable to find a suitable job - he was presented with opportunities to work for $10.50 to $12 an hour at Wal-Mart or Lowe's. Now, he is learning computer skills at a career college in nearby Newport News.
"This is an opportunity to get training and learn skills that will help me find a good paying job in this slow economy," said Mr. Brown. "I was shocked that there were not more meaningful opportunities available for someone like me, who has spent most of his life working on behalf of his country. But now, because of a career school, I'm getting a second chance for a professional career in the private sector."