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The Empire Strikes Back

So gainful employment (GE) rules have been finalized by the Department of Education. So we now know the details of how federal regulations will deal with the for-profit sector and its problem of high student loan default rates.

There is a narrative being built around the federal administration and DoE dealing with for-profit excesses, and industry lobbyists along with congressional allies pushing back on regulatory over-reach and punishment of low-income students (as a side note, it is fascinating to see Pelosi, Hastings and Boehner being in agreement). The result, according to this narrative, is that both sides won and both sides lost. The for-profit allies succeeded in watering down the regulations, but the for-profit critics succeeded in taking the first step in curbing excesses.

What you may be missing is the much bigger story. The story of the establishment that is threatened by innovation and fights back. The story of traditional higher ed getting fed up with alternative approaches and saying enough is enough. The empire is fighting back.

The GE rules are but one battle in a larger war. Whatever your opinions on the merit of the GE regulations, it would be a mistake to see this action as really being about the for-profit sector. It would be a mistake to think that we have an answer.

Consider GE in context of other political and policy issues.

  • Gainful Employment – The DoE looks at student default rates at for-profit schools, and creates new regulations based on the future ability of students to pay off debt. While based on good intentions, the regulations are targeted at one sector and ignore the bigger picture of rising higher education tuitions and massive student debt at all institutions.
  • Individual State Authorization – The DoE interprets past rulings to mean that online programs must have authorization from the home state of each student in order to operate. Since this move, many states have started registration processes to ‘get into the game’ and share the revenue. Consider how hard it will now be to start an online program. (Note – there is no better place for information and advocacy on this subject than WCET).
  • Accessibility for Online Programs – The DoE interprets accessibility rules to directly apply to all online programs without exception. No room for experimentation. This will apply not only to onllne technologies, but also to online content.
  • Review of For-Profit Accreditation – Senator Harkin is leading an effort along with DoE to change accreditation of for-profit schools, including review of their corporate operations.
  • Aggressive Expansion of Copyright – As this week’s Chronicle details, there are some major copyright expansion efforts that would dramatically curtail the use, distribution and liability around digital content.

There are valid points on each individual issues, but what is the pattern? The pattern is that organizations vested in the status quo and pushing back on many businesses and technologies that threaten to disrupt the higher education model. Every move makes it more difficult to innovate, regardless of whether you’re a for-profit provider, a community college wanting to serve remote students, or a non-profit wanting to extend workforce development. The pattern is one of organizational change and resistance. It is one of an established model that is unsustainable, but one that is fighting back.

There will be other battles to hit the public consciousness in higher ed, but it would be helpful to view them in the context of the bigger picture. Higher education needs fundamental change, but not every change will be successful. Each battle will have valid arguments on both sides, but don’t view the battles in isolation.

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