Daniel T. Madzelan, acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education, in charge of administering most of the agency’s programs for colleges and students was the opening keynote speaker during the  March 2010 Education Industry Investment Forum conference in Phoenix, Arizona.

Mr. Madzelan outlined President Obama’s commitment to improving the quality and outcomes for students with a goal of seeing every young adult leaving high school to attend at least one extra year of postsecondary or higher education training. The administration seeks to recover America’s  #1  educational ranking in world by 2020.

Some factoids and data to share driving education reforms:

  • 10% of  the nation’s high schools contribute to 90% of  the  total students who drop out.
  • 40% of incoming freshmen do not complete college in 6 years.
  • 80% of all 2009 student loans are owned by US DOE, rather than private finance.
  • Federal student loans now exceeds 500 billion annually.
  • Direct loan programs though Fed will impact colleges & universities next year especially for small, liberal arts colleges that have not converted.
  • Student loan default rates unacceptably high.
  • Institutions must be able to document gainful employment obtained as a result of the training/placement efforts of the PS program of instruction.
  • FAFSA form has been simplified for students through XML code.

During the Q&A phase of his presentation, I asked him about inclusive language and consideration for students with disabilities and the potential impact on their ability to enroll (ability to benefit concerns) and a possible enrollment exclusion by institutions because of potential student loan default as a failure to demonstrate gainful employment outcomes.

Mr. Madzelan stated that HEOA rule making has not yet addressed what constitutes appropriate educational or gainful employment outcomes in PS/HE for students with special leaning needs. My concern shared at the conference and through this post is it is certainly an area of concern if Title 4 Student Financial aid is on the line,  that any standards should be developed in consultation with people with disabilities and other grassroots organizations who focus on their causes.

Washington insider Tom Netting outlined proposed and recent student financing legislation that will have a lasting impact on the industry. Two pending bills the audience was alerted to were HR 3221 Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, and HR 3813 Veteran’s Training Act .

HR 3221 has some promising components embedded in it, especially the American Graduation Initiative (10.6 billion to community colleges) to leverage the affordable and available infrastructure of the nation’s community college system in creating high paying/high demand degree & non-degree certification programs.

According to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, students with disabilities are most likely to attend community colleges in higher numbers than universities, so increasing programming options in this arena could open up doors of opportunity for meaningful employment that pays a living wage.

HR 3813  provides Veteran’s  to apply their VA benefits to degree/certificate granting programs. For returning combat veterans with service connected disabilities such as PTSD and TBI, the ability to develop skills in the community through an expanding system of choices starts to correct the horrendous lack of attention and care to the nation’s wounded warriors as they re-integrate into the civilian world. A remaining, unaddressed challenge to educational institutions is their lack of understanding about how to appropriately offer and provide accommodations in the higher education setting for these students needs.

A huge remaining  hurdle for education reform is to make a consistent and fair determination of the definition of gainful employment. From what I gathered at the conference and through follow up in researching the issue, the Department of Education, Veteran’s Affairs, and the Department of Labor must align common programmatic criteria for determining what wages, benefits, and responsibilities constitute “gainful employment”. This is as true for adult learners without disabilities as it is for those who function as non-traditional learners.

Without the participation and inclusion of entities/people with disability into these policy deliberations, any meaningful education reform efforts will not be comprehensive, representative, or successful.