Occupy Movement Proves Rules Should Apply to All of Higher Education

The movement might be misguided or directionless. The focus, which they proclaim to be the nation's wealthiest one percent, might be the wrong target. The protestors themselves could even be acting on unfounded feelings of self-entitlement and jealousy, as some naysayers suggest they are. But the "Occupy" protestors lining streets and sitting-in on college campuses throughout the country are the most convincing evidence yet that all institutions of higher education should be subjected to the same regulations and academic standards.

The Occupiers have been criticized for not defining clearly enough the issues they oppose. Among their more formulated concerns, though, is the cost of college tuition and the lack of employment prospects after graduation. These two issues are known all too well by "for-profit" educators, who've been beaten up over it by the government and the media for nearly two years.

When the government began its efforts to reign in the for-profit sector in 2010 for its share of federal financial aid, the Department of Education went the regulatory route. They immediately began to introduce additional oversights to prevent schools for charging too much for programs that put graduates into fields where the resulting salaries didn’t justify what they paid for their schooling.

When Occupy protestors – most of whom attended four-year schools – took to the streets this year to argue the same issues for themselves, the more traditional side of higher education wasn’t on the receiving end of any regulatory action. Instead, they were issued a plea. In an address to the Federal Student Aid conference in Las Vegas last month, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called on college leaders to “think more creatively — and with much greater urgency” about escalating college costs.

Whether or not Duncan sees the double standard doesn’t change the fact that the Occupiers have graduated off a cliff. These few thousand students and graduates pursued a degree to prepare against a bleak future, and happened upon one anyway – the loan debt they now face only compounding the situation.

Traditional colleges and universities make little to no effort in placing students into actual jobs and who express almost no interest in former students once they leave campus. The schools are allowed to offer general degree paths and areas of major that leave students no more employable than they were when they enrolled. Traditional colleges are allowed to make unsubstantiated claims in their advertising and recruitment materials about the quality of their education, the technology involved in their programs, and job prospects graduates will encounter after completing their degrees.

We know that an effort is underway for 1 million or more of the occupiers to refuse to pay back their loans. Who can blame them for feeling duped?

If any one of the above claims were made by a career college, the DOE would enact sanctions that could threaten the school’s existence and cause a landslide of winnable lawsuits to be filed by former students and alumni. Rather than leveling the playing field, though, the DOE continues to waste resources on the witch hunt to condemn career colleges.

The Government Accountability Office’s latest undercover investigation targeting for-profit schools claims to have upturned evidence of lax academic standards in some online programs.

The findings assert that staff at six of the 12 colleges that enrolled GAO investigators posing as students allowed plagiarism or awarded credit “for incomplete or substandard performance.”

The timing couldn’t have been any worse. When protestors are being beaten, sprayed with mace, and dragged away from college campuses to jail, it might occur to someone in Washington that the more immediate need would be for legislators to take action about a situation turning violent than it would be for them to go about issuing another who-knows-if-it-is-accurate report condemning for-profit schools.

Career educators go to great lengths to help students prepare resumes, refine interview skills, and even to land interviews with reputable local employers. Do they all find jobs? No, not in this economy. But most do find work, and in growing career fields. The claims for-profit schools make in advertisements are subject to the heaviest of regulations and, if they are inaccurate or overstate, schools are made to face the severest of penalties. Career colleges’ recruitment efforts might be aggressive, but they are also consistent with the demographic they appeal to – students who need extra encouragement to take the step toward being something more than what they are.

The college experience is meant to be transformative. More and more in America, it’s becoming a negative transformation as graduates find the opportunities to put their new knowledge to work – for pay – don’t exist. We might never understand the Occupy movement or its goals to the fullest, and yet what’s clear is that students who attend any institution of higher learning share some expectations about the colleges they attend: honesty and integrity from their educators, the most talented educators they can have access to who will engage and push them to learn, and when they complete their education, to be a more attractive option to employers. By definition, only career colleges are arranged to deliver on these goals, and they are the only ones facing the regulatory equivalent to pepper spray.

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