By Candace Bensel
Kentucky has been the site of a recent visit by Jill Biden and U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis as the White House promotes the importance of higher education and the role of community colleges. Recently, the Obama Administration announced it would advance a new initiative focused on community colleges, which serves as an important effort to expand opportunities for Americans and place greater focus on post-secondary education.
The President has made it a top priority to ensure our nation has the most college graduates in the world in just eight years, which is an ambitious, yet attainable goal. But to achieve this objective, all institutions of higher learning including our nation’s private sector colleges and universities will need to be part of the equation. These career-oriented schools provide instruction and education to students seeking skills and training in high-growth industries in our economy, such as healthcare or information technology.
They are the workers who fill the jobs we often read about in the paper which require unique expertise that is lacking in today’s workforce. Even with a national unemployment rate of eight percent which is even higher here in the Commonwealth, there are employers having difficulty finding employees who have the specialized training they need. Whether it’s an adult who raised a family and has decided to start a career or someone whose job experience no longer translates to employment and is seeking new skills, career-oriented schools throughout Kentucky and our nation meet this growing and important need.
Oftentimes, when students arrive at our institutions, they have lived and worked in the real economy for some time and bring to bear an experience level lost on many young students attending traditional four-year universities. These individuals arrive on our campuses seeking skills and training for a career path that has been selected and is in demand. They recognize that private sector colleges and universities provide tailored programs and curriculum that meet their needs and flexible schedules that allow them to work full time and care for their families.
Private sector schools educate 12 percent of all college students in our nation and 10 percent in Kentucky. This education is in high-growth industries such as nursing and allied health, we are literally ensuring there are sufficient life-saving professionals to staff hospitals and care centers having educated 40,000 nurses since 2010 alone.
The Administration’s focus on higher education and community colleges is welcome, but to meet the goals the President has set out, all institutions of higher learning must have a seat at the table and be a part of the solution. Without using every teacher and classroom – whether a physical or virtual classroom – we will not be able to successfully compete with other nations. In today’s world, that directly impacts economic growth and job creation.
Unfortunately, despite the White House’s commitment to education, they have sent mixed messages by pursuing regulatory measures that have actually made it harder for some to obtain a college or university degree. For instance, just last year, the Department of Education issued a badly misnamed “gainful employment” rule, which establishes broad requirements for private sector schools that threaten their eligibility for federal student aid and may force some to close their doors. This would disallow thousands of students the opportunity to obtain the skills and training necessary to attain employment.
These overly burdensome and restrictive rules ignore the realities many Americans face, particularly those who come from economically-challenged backgrounds and have less opportunities available to them. Career-oriented schools oftentimes provide these individuals with an education that other institutions including community colleges are not equipped to handle.
The competition among the various sectors of higher education is healthy as it provides improved programs and curriculum, which only benefits students. As Mrs. Biden and Secretary Solis travel the country extolling the importance of community colleges and higher education, we hope they factor in all the different institutions within this sector working to meet the President’s goal of leading the world with the largest amount of college and university graduates.
Candace Bensel is the executive director of the Kentucky Association of Career Colleges and Schools.