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Researcher Says Education Dept. Again Distorted Work

July 5, 2019

A prominent higher education researcher wrote this week that the Trump administration had misrepresented her research findings in its justification to rescind the 2014 gainful-employment rule.

It’s the second time that Sandy Baum, a nonresident fellow at the Urban Institute, has said the Education Department improperly cited her work in its efforts to repeal the Obama-era regulations.

Baum and Harry Holzer, her co-author for the 2017 book Making College Work, wrote to The Chronicle of Higher Education to say that the department had seriously distorted their book’s message. The researchers in the book found that community college credentials have better labor market returns than associate degrees. The Education Department cited that finding to argue one sector, career education, was unfairly singled out by the gainful-employment rule.

Baum and Holzer wrote that general associate degrees are not supposed to be directly connected to careers but are instead designed for students to transfer to four-year institutions. Their book explicitly argues, they wrote, for stronger regulation of for-profit colleges through a regulation like gainful employment.

While all programs across higher ed have strengths and weaknesses, the authors wrote, “the problem of students incurring high levels of debt while pursuing preparation for specific types of employment is unique to the programs covered by the gainful-employment rules. The decision to rescind these rules is a mistake, given the poor record of the for-profit institutions. To base that decision to any extent on a misreading of our research adds insult to injury. The department should not misuse such research to justify its ill-advised policy actions.”

Last year, Baum said that the Education Department had mischaracterized her findings in a 2008 paper to justify a proposal to repeal the gainful-employment rule. The department cited her paper as evidence undermining the rule’s debt-to-earning metrics. But Baum said that paper concluded that the gainful-employment standards were, if anything, too permissive.


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