We all know that the path to a good-paying job is a good education.

The recent economic downturn has made that fact especially clear. Lingering high unemployment, combined with the types of new jobs being created (which tend to require at least a bachelor’s degree), underscore its importance even further.

Two recent articles from the Wall Street Journal highlight what could be yet another disturbing facet to the challenge of getting that much-needed education.

Earlier this week, the Journal explored some of the challenges facing the nation’s community colleges, traditionally the most accessible route to a degree program, especially for people on limited incomes. Indeed, politicians ranging from state governors to President Obama have lauded community colleges as a key path for increasing the number of Americans with advanced degrees. And as the Journal notes, “to many in community-college administration, accessibility remains a near-sacred obligation.”

In the midst of the recent Recession, the popularity of the two-year colleges has grown significantly, leading to record enrollments and increasing competition for seats in scheduled classes. At the same time, however, many state governments are struggling with huge budget deficits, leading to funding cuts for their respective community college systems.

As a result, some community colleges have begun talking about something that would have been considered anathema not long ago – enrollment caps. California, which has the largest community college system in the country, serving approximately 2.7 million students, says it will turn away about 350,000 applicants next year, the Journal reports. Some colleges are also considering establishing a higher academic bar to provide an additional weeding out process in their admissions process.

The likely effect – more and more people on limited incomes who are striving to take advantage of this primary route to a better life will find themselves facing a huge roadblock.

Jobs: The For-Profit Focus. In recent years, a growing number of working adults and high school graduates have turned to for-profit education institutions for specialized career-oriented training and degree programs geared to help them improve their employment prospects.

You’ve seen the commercials by institutions such as the University of Phoenix, Kaplan, Devry and ITT Tech. Proponents say the for-profit schools offer access to higher education for many lower-income students who wouldn’t otherwise have such an opportunity, as well as a practical way to handle the overflow from community colleges.

All well and good, except that recently a number of politicians and policy-makers have been increasingly critical of the for-profit education industry, claiming it engages in deceptive marketing practices and that too many of its graduates are unable to find suitable employment and end up unable to pay back their student loans.

But at a time when the nation’s economy is only beginning to show firms signs of recovery and the unemployment rate continues to hover around nine percent, it should be pretty obvious that inability to find employment isn’t just a problem for for-profit education.

In addition, it’s important to consider the source of the criticism. Toward the end of January, a front page article in the Wall Street Journal examined the actions of a politically-connected Wall Street hedge fund manager known for making money by short-selling the stocks of for-profit education companies. According to the article, the hedge fund manager met with Education Department officials to discuss what he sees as significant problems with the sector. Last year, he also testified before a U.S. Senate committee on the subject, the Journal reports.

Over the past few years, a surge in new student admissions and access to government-sponsored student loans has helped spur massive growth in the for-profit education industry. But since 2009, during a time when stocks in general have risen, stocks at many education companies have fallen – and “a major cause is uncertainty about future regulation” the Journal notes.

The fact that a hedge fund manager who stands to make a profit when a company’s stock drops is so closely connected to policy-makers with the authority to make decisions that will cause those stocks to drop should be troubling. In some quarters, such activity would be called “gaming the system.”

Even more troubling, however, is the fact of who is likely to be the ultimate victim of these surreptitious efforts by Wall Street speculators to undermine the for-profit education institutions. That would be the “clients” of these institutions -- everyday working people trying to improve their chances of getting a good-paying job by getting a good education.

One of the great ideals of America is its status as a land of opportunity. That ideal shouldn’t just hold for Wall Street speculators. It should be just as open to working men and women everywhere. And the power of that ideal shouldn’t be underestimated. Anyone who has witnessed what has taken place in Egypt over the past few weeks should be able to appreciate what can happen when people are denied for too long the simple opportunity to improve their own lives.

Maybe there is room for reform in the realm of education. But do it for the right reasons. And make sure it’s done in the full light of the public eye, not behind closed doors by shadowy connected interests.

It wasn’t long ago that the thought of reforming how Wall Street works played large in public opinion. Maybe it’s time to give that idea another look.
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Thomas Derr

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