Chris Davie has worked at the elite level of audio production and served as the vice president of the US division of SAE Institute. He is now managing partner of the consultancy firm, Sonority Group, specializing in education for creative industries (sonoritygroup.com)
NASHVILLE, TN—When I sought a school to learn audio engineering, the choices were very limited. In the decades since my education experience, aspiring audio engineers have become bombarded with choices and, in may cases, extremely skilled marketing and admissions departments are wooing them to attend their programs. This trend has been exemplified not only in professional audio education but also across almost all academic studies; it has become the norm in public, private, not-for profit and for-profit schools. As a result, we are seeing enormous growth in student debt and graduates not finding what the Department of Education terms “gainful employment.”
Gainful employment is a highly controversial topic in the Higher Education ranks and, as of July 1, 2015, something all for-profit, many not for-profit and community colleges are becoming intimately familiar with. New regulations were imposed which hold a school accountable for the debt its graduates carry after graduation and that graduate’s ability to repay that money. The Department of Education estimates that if all schools governed under this new regulation were required to meet the standards immediately (there is a grace period to allow schools to prepare), 1,400 programs would fail the metrics and those students would lose their eligibility for financial aid, likely killing the future of the programs. The quick version of the regulation is that a student’s loan debt must stay within a certain percentage of his/her postgraduate earnings. If your program does not produce skilled and working graduates able to repay their loan debts, the school loses the ability to rely on federal financial aid—which can currently account for up to 90 percent of a school’s revenue stream.
So what does that mean for pro-audio education? There are three big factors at play in the equation of accountability to the Department of Education and ultimately the taxpayers: cost of attendance, student outcomes and graduate placement. They all boil down to whether a student is prepared and ultimately gainfully employed. The schools that balance those three factors will be in a great position, regardless of any new or existing regulations. Unfortunately, many institutions have poured huge dollars into the acquisition side to increase profit margins, build large infrastructures and train large volumes of students. They will need to re-balance quickly as those students graduate and search for jobs to pay back the accumulated loan debt. Accountability for career placement is not a new concept; however, tying graduates’ loan debt to income is. Considering a graduate placed for earning a few hundred dollars pulling feeder at a weekend festival is very different than that graduate’s ability to repay the government on a $50,000 loan debt.
Some schools are beginning to insulate themselves from the Department of Education’s regulations by opting to not participate in Federal Financial Aid, offering apprenticeship-based education or shuttering certain programs. I think we will see many more non-traditional education options developing as a result. A key part of their success will be the collaboration and acceptance from industry. Graduate success is the ultimate metric for the quality of a program and though frightening for some, it is a very exciting time for pro-audio education. The educators that embrace the concept of “what’s best for the student” will no doubt excel.