POLITICO Pro Q&A: Rep. Paul Mitchell

July 18, 2017
In The News

Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.) might be new to Congress this year, but he’s no novice when it comes to the political battles over for-profit colleges that are again flaring as the Trump administration works to overhaul Obama-era policies aimed at the industry.

Before coming to Washington, Mitchell was a part owner and chief executive officer of Ross Medical Education Center, a company that operates more than two dozen campuses across the country. Mitchell says he brings his more than 35 years of experience in workforce development and career education — as well as his personal experience as a first-generation college student — to his new post on the House Education and Workforce Committee.

Earlier this year, he co-sponsored the House bill that’s part of a new, bipartisan effort in Congress to overturn a decade-old federal prohibition on tracking the educational and employment outcomes of college students.

The goal of the College Transparency Act of 2017, H.R. 2434 (115), is to allow prospective students to obtain more accurate and complete data about whether students at a particular college, or in a certain major, graduate on time and find well-paying jobs. But efforts to lift the federal ban on a “student-unit record system,” which was championed by Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), remain controversial among some private college leaders and privacy advocates.

Here are excerpts from an interview with Mitchell about his bill, and his views about higher education policy.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

On the current challenges with higher education data:

“One of the problems you've got with the system as it has evolved is everyone uses different data. None of it matches. The definitions don't match. And some of them are absolutely nonsensical. They just don't fit that many types of institutions. You've got four or five competing definitions of what a graduate is or an enrollment that institutions have to match — be it a career school group like mine or a four-year university. ...

“So as I looked at how we deal with postsecondary education, as we talk about the concerns, it's how we get information that's usable by consumers, by folks like our children and grandchildren. ...

“We need to share that information with consumers: what the real cost is for them to attend and complete a program; what the likelihood of success is. Why should you be left with guessing whether or not ... your likelihood of success is 75 percent, 90 percent? That's a meaningful difference.”

On Foxx’s opposition to repealing the ban on a “student unit record” and privacy concerns:

The data produced under the bill would be aggregated rather than individualized, Mitchell says. Earnings data, for instance, would be sent to institutions from the Treasury Department through an “encrypted file” that is then “blown up” and no longer exists in the federal government.

"I do not want a student unit record wandering around the federal government. This aggregates student data and an ability to report back to the institution that is uniform and complete — as complete as you get realistically, short of herding everybody up as a graduation requirement that they all come back at six months or a year later to tell you what they're doing in terms of their employment."

“I do not support in any way shape or form creating a student unit record [system]. I believe there's every way in the world to protect the privacy of all students in the system while still getting the information. And there's technology to do it. I admit to anybody, nothing in the world is perfect, God knows, but if we do it right it's a whole lot better than what exists now.”

On response from higher education groups:

“The response we've gotten has been surprisingly more universal than I thought it would be. Universally positive. I thought we might from some groups get more pushback. … There's a public demand to be able to know more about the likelihood of success if they're going to make that kind of investment for their children or grandchildren. We owe it to them. ... You can find out more information about a washer and dryer and the reliability of that than you can find out the likelihood of success from enrolling in a college or university.”

On the vehicle for moving this bill forward:

“There's no way that we deal with higher education reauthorization without talking about transparency and institutions in terms of student outcomes. That I believe is pretty broad consensus on the committee, not just Republicans. [Rep.] Jared Polis is a co-sponsor of the bill. There's others on both sides who say we need to see this information now. So it's not that it's an R versus D mentality. I think it's a bipartisan concern with arming consumers with accurate information. ...

“There is a desire to move forward with higher ed reauthorization in the fall. Student data outcomes, transparency, should be part of the conversation.”

On whether improved data about student outcomes should be used to hold colleges accountable:

“We need to stop talking about shifting accountability. The accountability first, if we provide the information, is for the individual who chose to do that knowing what the outcomes will be. ...

“Why are we so concerned about individual accountability for the decisions they make? If we see as, a society, as governmental entity, value in investing in the skill set of our population to postsecondary education, and we're going to give you the opportunity to do that -- we'll help both through grants as well as a variety of loan programs to help you achieve that, we see value in that — then we're trusting you to make a reasonable decision. I believe most people will. Some people inherently will make decisions that are ill-serving or stupid but you can't protect the world from that. Why is it that it's someone else's fault if they've gotten clear information about what the likelihood of success is?

… And more importantly why should government determine what that level ought to be? Because what you do is you take a decision about what someone wants to do with their career and how they want to pay for it, and you've now opened it up to politicization. Because now some other entity's involved saying, 'well you can access financial aid but not for that type of institution.' And we saw that happen in the previous administration. And the reality is now you have so few institutions that are doing some technical training, because some of our current tech persecution was just that.”

On the Obama administration’s crackdown on for-profit colleges:

“It's not the government's job to tell you whether you should go to this school and that program because we think it's a good program or not. … It's this mindset that we'll protect you because you're too ignorant to figure out whether it's good for you or not. What an incredible mentality. My perspective is provide consumers, provide families the information they need to know whether or not that thing they're thinking about is likely to lead to success. Provide them information they can reasonably understand and use and cut all the gobbledygook out. Now if institutions and their accrediting agencies want to talk about how much people like their housing, and all that, that's great. Go ahead and put that up there. But the key information has to be disseminated, and disseminated in a clear manner are student outcomes information."

On abuses in the for-profit college industry and how the Trump administration should rewrite the ‘gainful employment’ rule:

“There are people that will act badly or have bad outcomes and we deal with it, universally, and not say it's particularly endemic to one sector or another. I've been in postsecondary education and workforce development for 35 years, and I can tell you that non-profits, for-profits and public institutions aren't anymore likely to act with some level of irresponsibility or poor intentions. ...

“If the department is going to have standards for gainful employment that they apply in terms of whether [a program] is eligible for federal support, then they should apply to all sectors. ...

“The contention was that they should apply to the vocational programs. Well, I'm sorry, I would suggest that most people who go on to a postsecondary institution, whatever type, go on because they have some career aspirations. To suggest that it only applies to private, for-profit career colleges is at best a naive distortion. It should apply to all of them. They should have a standard that applies universally to all of them. ...

“There should not be a difference — we should not make a difference [among for-profit, non-profit and public schools]. That segregation creates a stigma for someone who chooses to go for a vocation career."

On how the federal government should address college accreditors:

“Let's go back to what the primary, historical role of accrediting agencies were, which is to monitor or assess the quality of the educational program, the likelihood of successful outcomes for a student, the institutional stability — and assist them in terms of developing that. ...

“[The Obama administration] wanted to evolve [accreditation] to another hammer in the system — literally trying to do things that sometimes they were ill-equipped to do. … They can't do both roles effectively — watchdog and educational support mechanisms. We need to define [those roles] in a manner that makes accrediting commissions effective again and gets them out of a Catch 22.”

On his relationship with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos:

“She lived on the west side of the state; I live on the east side of the state. It's not like we spent a lot of time socializing or anything like that, but I've known Mrs. DeVos for a long time. …

“One thing she's committed to is quality educational outcomes for young people. … The other is maximizing choice for individuals, for families. ... The school choice discussion has artificially distorted to be a public versus private battleground. I view choice as choice within the public arena as well. You should be able to choose and not have artificial geographic distinctions that say 'no you live in this side of the township so you can't go to school there.”

On falling enrollments in the for-profit college industry:

“You do have a significant cyclical or demographic factor in terms of enrollment in postsecondary education in total, never mind just career schools. ... I attribute most of it to that. Has there been an impact on the private career school sector of the regulatory environment? Sure. It was intentional. In my opinion it was absolutely intentional. ... The previous administration believed that education should be a public monopoly. And if they have their way, apparently, a free public monopoly. Except there's no such thing in the world as free — it's just someone else is paying for it.”

On the future of the for-profit college industry under the Trump administration:

“I do think you'll see an expansion of vibrant career and technical education, which we need in this country. Where and how it's going to be delivered, I can't guess at this point in time. I think there'd be a mix — maybe more private career schools and maybe more of the non-profits. …

“I don't know where those will end up. And that isn't my primary concern. I don't care. What I do care about is are we meeting the needs of people that are looking for career opportunities for their future. And are we meeting the needs of the economy, providing people that are trained to be able to do whatever it is we need them to do for our economic well-being. That's the primary concern. How and where that's delivered, I don't care. We should not be concerned about that."

On how the House should tackle reauthorization of the Higher Education Act piecemeal bills versus a comprehensive rewrite of the law:

“That ultimately becomes a committee chair prerogative, a majority leader and speaker prerogative whether they get to the floor. I'll let them make that call. It becomes harder to get it all to work together when you do it in pieces, which is why they have authorizing committees. …

“I think to get to substantive, meaningful updating and change you really need to tackle the beast in one full swoop, and if nothing else take on your challenges and beatings all in one time too.”