Tallahassee Democrat. July 14, 2014.
Pro-growth policies in recent years have sparked an economic turnaround that makes Florida the envy of most states.
Our annual job growth rate of 3.3 percent is the fastest since 2006, and Florida’s month-over-month private sector job growth has been positive for the past 34 consecutive months. Florida businesses have created more than 600,000 jobs since 2010, while the state’s unemployment rate has remained below the national unemployment rate for the last nine consecutive months.
Career colleges advance these positive trends. Their programs are concentrated, streamlined and tightly focused on workforce demand and job availability, utilizing employer councils to ensure that classes and labs reflect current day marketplace needs and future directions. It is no coincidence that career college programs help prepare students for employment in at least 10 of the state’s 20 hottest job categories.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education has the career college sector squarely in its sights with the proposed “gainful employment” regulation. While the regulation ostensibly is focused on students and schools, its impact on Florida businesses could be substantial. That’s because career colleges supply employers with thousands of skilled, motivated and “job-ready” applicants every year. As such, these institutions help Florida businesses in health care, information technology, hospitality and other high-demand employment areas grow by fueling the talent pipeline.
The proposed gainful employment regulation will force schools to cut programs if their graduates are unable to meet a set of arbitrary salary and loan repayment thresholds. While the regulatory language includes all postsecondary institutions offering certificate and two-year career education programs, make no mistake about it: The higher, non-taxpayer subsidized tuition costs of career colleges make them squarely (and unfairly) the government’s target.
This is a federal regulation, but its effects will be felt at the state level. Consider the impact in Florida, where more than 1,000 career college campuses are educating more than 300,000 students — almost one in five of all 12-month enrollments. The government estimates that the proposed rule, due to take effect soon, will impact about 20 percent of programs immediately. Another 10 percent of programs would be relegated to the department’s putative penalty box, a gray zone of possible sanctions sure to cast a chill on new student enrollments.
The Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU) recently released a report finding that the regulation could impact up to 44 percent of career college students. In Florida, the new rule would have the potential to push 132,000 students out of higher education.
In tampering with talent availability, the Department of Education threatens slowdowns in key sectors of the Florida economy. Just consider the following:
• Health care will account for almost one in four jobs over the next 10 years. In the retirement-attractive Sunshine State, 17 percent of residents are 65 years old or older. More than 60 percent of health care graduates in Florida are educated at career schools.
• A study by TechAmerica ranks Florida No. 3 for high-tech establishments and No. 5 for high-tech employment. Florida career colleges produce over 60 percent of in-state information technology graduates.
• Florida hosts almost 95 million visitors a year. Career colleges educate 83 percent of Florida’s culinary arts graduates.
Career colleges also help ensure the availability of a workforce that is as diverse as it is well-skilled and job ready. Twenty-two percent of Florida’s career college graduates are African-Americans, compared with 17 percent for all institutions; for Latino students it’s 30 percent, compared with 22 percent for all institutions.
The constructive contribution of career colleges to a more diverse, better-prepared Florida workforce explains why more than 100 leaders across the state, including the Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Hospital Association and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, have joined together to oppose the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed gainful employment regulation. Many in Congress are likewise opposed, including Florida members of Congress U.S. Reps. Alcee Hastings, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel and Joe Garcia.
Student loan debt is an important problem, and solving it is an important national priority. Lending issues are not, however, limited to career college students. To make real headway, we need less scapegoating and more systematic assessment. Meanwhile, widely available career college access means more skills for Florida workers, better opportunities to grow Florida businesses and a more vibrant economy overall.
Tom C. Feeney is president and chief executive officer of the Associated Industries of Florida (aif.com).