This week, the president is speaking and acting on the issue of student loans for higher education. He appears to truly believe that a college education is important and is taking executive action to help students pay for their education. This seems like a straightforward feel-good issue...except there is a painful irony hiding behind the president’s words and actions.
A closer look at the president’s Department of Education, sadly, reveals an elitist streak when it comes to higher education. At the same time that the president is speaking grandly about helping students pay for college, his education department is moving forward on a regulation that would severely limit the opportunity for college for a certain type of student -- those attending non-traditional, private-sector colleges.
At its core, this regulation implies that traditional college educations (picture ivy-covered stone walls and a sun-dappled campus full of young people) are a good investment, but private-sector educations (picture adult students attending class at night or online, learning a new trade, like accounting, nursing or computer network design) are not.
If this seems at all like deja vu to you, you’re absolutely right. Fully four years ago, I wrote on this page about the same regulation and how it would have prevented primarily-working-class adult students from receiving government-backed student loans.
Back then, the issue was ultimately resolved by a federal judge, who gutted the regulation in a ruling where he said benchmarks in the so-called “gainful employment” rule were “arbitrary.”
I have to wonder if “arbitrary” was the judge’s polite way of saying “immature” or “snobbish.” Because the president’s very-public effort to help traditional college students while at the same time quietly acting to limit opportunity for non-traditional students does seem to be a form of snobbery and elitism that is childish at best, classist at worst.
Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the motivation is immature, not sinister. It’s quite possible that the president and white house staff simply think of college and picture themselves and all of their privileged friends and the types of schools they attended. They honestly may not know or associate with any of the types of adult students who go to college later in life, perhaps taking courses online after work instead of during the day on a college campus.
My own experience in the executive branch gives me reason to suspect this issue could very well be driven by young, elite White House staff – not by Secretary Arne Duncan or his deputies.
If that is the case, my advice to Secretary Duncan: Be the grownup in the room. A great cabinet member will stand up to the president and youthful White House staff. To push back on this rule would also make Duncan look like a leader and help the president with his growing image as an out-of-touch intellectual.
Duncan has an opportunity to show students of all ages, from all walks of life, that opportunity for a college degree is not just for some...it truly is for all, including adults who dream of a better life for themselves and their families.
Jean Card is a writer and communications consultant with expertise in public policy and small business issues. She is a former speechwriter for the U.S. secretaries of Labor and Treasury as well as the attorney general. Follow her on Twitter: @JeanCard