MILWAUKEE JOURNAL-SENTINEL. FEBRUARY 18, 2013. By Steve Gunderson. For 16 years, I had the honor of representing western Wisconsin in Congress. But in so many ways, that experience was a prelude to current times.
Shortly after taking office, it became clear to me that hundreds of family farms were closing down, and rural manufacturing jobs were the first to leave America for Mexico and then the Pacific. All of a sudden, my primary responsibility in Congress was to focus on adult education and job training for my constituents.
My passion for postsecondary education with a career focus has never stopped. I was a proud supporter of the role all our colleges hold in this important work. And today, I have the best job of my life – leading America’s private-sector colleges and universities as we crawl out of a recession and find ways to put people back to work with real jobs, real incomes and a real chance for life in the middle class.
A recent national survey by Gallup and The Lumina Foundation shows that 67% of Americans believe postsecondary education is essential for a good job – the highest number ever connecting college to jobs. A recent survey of college freshmen found that 88% said their primary reason for going to college was to get a good job. The bridge between college and jobs has never been stronger, and for good reason.
The Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce projects that by 2025, there will be 55 million new workers in America; 23 million will fill brand new jobs, and 32 million will replace retiring baby boomers. The center also tells us that 65% of all jobs and 85% of the new jobs will require postsecondary education.
All of this is important background as Wisconsin considers new outcome standards for private-sector (for-profit) colleges and Milwaukee considers limitations on using public development funds for private-sector schools.
While I serve as the voice of private-sector colleges as president of their national association, I’m the first to suggest that we are facing far greater demand for postsecondary education dollars than we have resources. One of the incredible benefits of my schools is that private-sector dollars are investing in building capacity for postsecondary education.
While partnerships between local governments and development firms (in this case, providing incentives for Everest College) may have been nice in a different era, such incentives are financial history. To Everest College’s credit, it did two things we all should support.
First, when it recognized its school was not performing to appropriate standards with poor graduation rates and poor job placement rates, it stopped pretending it was and shut down the school. That’s a standard of practice we should encourage for every school. And when it made the decision to shut down, it also made sure that no student was left with debt but no degree by refunding every student the money paid – at a cost of almost $4 million.
Wisconsin’s Education Approval Board is now considering minimum standards for both student program completion and graduate employment rates. Such efforts, while noble, become incredibly complex in an economy still trying to recover the jobs lost in the recession with over 12 million still unemployed and another 2.5 million having given up even looking for work.
My biggest concern is that such standards would only be placed on the state’s 55 private-sector colleges and universities in Wisconsin. If the board were to insist on a 60% graduation rate for these private-sector schools, they would be imposing a standard that could not be met by most campuses in the University of Wisconsin System and most community colleges in the state.
Outcomes should matter. But they should matter for every student at every college in the state and the nation. In today’s world of postsecondary education needs and limited resources, we can no longer continue with separate standards for any one sector of higher education. All schools should be held to the same standards of transparency in giving students and their families the information needed to make the right decision about college. All schools should be held to the same standards for performance and outcomes – including job placement.
My greatest reward in this work is watching the students we serve cross the bridge to a new life. Last year, Wisconsin’s private-sector colleges educated 34,000 students. Over 60% of our students were adults returning to school. Over 71% were low-income students depending upon Pell Grants for access. Thirty percent of our students are minority, a rate far higher than other schools in the state.
We’re often equipping students with multiple barriers to college achievement with that success. Not every student, nor every school, gets it right in our sector – or all of higher education. But the state needs every college and every college student in order to prepare for the economy ahead.
There is a wonderful African proverb that says, “To go quickly, go alone. To go far, go together.” Wisconsin needs to develop postsecondary education goals, standards, outcomes and placement requirements together – for every school, every student and every citizen.
Steve Gunderson, a former congressman from Wisconsin, is president and chief executive officer of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities.