To the Editor:
Over the past two years, Washington has been ground zero in a prolonged and contentious conversation about private-sector higher education. Investigations and hearings by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions into questionable practices at a handful of private-sector institutions have been the talk of the town when it comes to higher education.
Frustration directed at higher education is understandable. Students trying to get ahead in the U.S. face formidable challenges. College costs continue to grow well beyond the pace of inflation. Graduates are emerging with a greater debt burden then ever before. And due to our nation's prolonged economic slump, graduates, whether from an Ivy League school or local community college, are struggling to find jobs.
Yet with so many big issues swirling about the entire higher-education landscape, the discussion on Capitol Hill has been inordinately focused on one sector. While the private sector makes up only 12 percent of all higher education, it seemed to take up nearly 100 percent of the oxygen in Washington.
At times the discussion appeared designed to grab headlines rather than get to the root of issues facing students across all sectors. At its worst, the dialogue served only to inflame and mislead.
Don't get me wrong: there have been clear abuses across all of higher education. Those who have taken shortcuts have a responsibility to own up to their problems and clean up their act. All of us in higher education must be held accountable for our actions—and also our outcomes.
But this ongoing bashing has had a major unintended consequence: harming students and graduates who chose to invest in themselves and their futures by earning a degree from a private-sector college or university. The broadside attacks on career-focused institutions—questioning their inherent quality regardless of their accreditation or outcomes—have devalued these students' credentials and diminished their hard work.
DeVry University was founded in 1931 and has a long history of providing quality, career-focused education. But our 250,000-plus alumni, especially the most recent graduates, have been unnecessarily stigmatized and potentially economically disadvantaged as a result of a coordinated effort to tarnish a subsection of postsecondary education. They don't need their educational choices questioned—and maligned—by others.
It is disheartening that the attempt in Washington to discredit private-sector schools has harmed so many successful graduates, tossing them aside like so much collateral damage. For their sake, I fervently hope that we now move beyond the heated rhetoric of the past two years and move toward outcome-based solutions for all of higher education—calmly considered and broadly applied.
On a personal note: I have devoted my entire career to higher education, focusing primarily on expanding access to underserved populations. An alumnus of the Chicago public schools, I have worked for public, independent, and private-sector institutions as well as for the Department of Education. I have seen firsthand what educational opportunity can do for students. It is no accident that I ended up at DeVry, as I always have been driven by a devotion to empowering students to succeed.
There are far too many students struggling to make it every year. Which is why the recent focus on private-sector institutions to the exclusion of all other issues in higher education is so misguided. In targeting the private sector alone, Washington has glossed over systemic issues that plague higher education and hurt students, the vast majority of whom don't even attend private-sector institutions.
Educational quality, tuition costs, graduation rates, and student debt are critical issues for all students. All institutions must do a better job of measuring and reporting these metrics. There continue to be tremendous institutional barriers for underrepresented students who want to go to college. And we must address serious skills gaps in critical areas to boost our economy and remain competitive globally.
Our nation's students are counting on us to find solutions to these challenges. I hope we are all up to the task.
Sharon Thomas Parrott
Senior Vice President for External Relations
and Chief Regulatory Compliance Officer
Downers Grove, Ill.