Gainful Employment

The gainful employment rule data the Education Department released in January make clear that some federally funded career education programs are consistently leaving students worse off – drowning in debt they cannot repay – while many other programs are not. We’ve previously blogged about how bad some of these programs are.

We just put together examples of schools located near each other offering the same program with very different results. The examples illustrate that location and type of program don’t explain abysmal outcomes. They also underscore the continued need for the gainful employment regulation to provide key cost and outcome information to students, warn students about failing programs that may lose eligibility for federal funding, and ensure that failing and zone programs improve.    

Amazingly, the for-profit college industry continues to defend programs that failed the gainful employment rule’s modest standards. The cosmetology trade association, for example, recently argued in federal court that a cosmetology program with a 14% job placement rate and a 100% borrowing rate should continue to receive unlimited federal funding. Why should taxpayers keep subsidizing such a program?

The gainful employment rule is based on the premise that students deserve basic information when deciding where to enroll, and that taxpayers should not subsidize programs that consistently underperform and leave students worse off than when they enrolled. This is just common sense, which is why so many student, veterans, consumer, civil rights, and other organizations, as well as state attorneys general, support the rule and oppose any effort to delay, repeal, or weaken it.

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Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education announced it was giving schools about three additional months to comply with two requirements under the gainful employment regulation finalized in 2014. This delay is troubling given the urgent need to protect students and taxpayers from career education programs that consistently leave students with debts they cannot repay.  

In January, the Department released the first set of official career education program rates under the gainful employment rule. Fully three-quarters of the rated programs passed the modest standards outlined in the rule, which measure graduates’ debt compared to their incomes to ensure that federally-funded career education programs at public, non-profit, and for-profit colleges are complying with the statutory requirement that they “prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” In fact, nine out of 10 colleges with rated career education programs had no failing programs, including the for-profit college chains American Public University, Capella University, Concorde Career College, ECPI University, Empire Beauty School, Grand Canyon University, and Strayer University.

But 803 programs (9%) failed the test because they consistently leave students with more debt than they can repay. Some of these programs were at schools that have since closed, including ITT Tech and Westwood College. But many other failing programs are still enrolling students and receiving hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. What do these programs look like? Here are some examples.

  • Florida Technical College in Orlando charges $31,555 for its associate’s degree in medical assisting, and its graduates typically earn only $14,500 a year – less than the federal minimum wage working full-time – and owe over $17,000 in federal student loan debt.
  • McCann School of Business and Technology in Hazelton, PA charges $30,860 for its associate’s degree in medical assisting, and it has only a 7% on-time completion rate and a 46% job placement rate. Its graduates typically earn only $20,300 – less than the average earnings of high school graduates – but graduates of this program at all McCann School locations in 2014-15 had over $26,000 in student loan debt.
  • Art Institute of Pittsburgh charges $44,804 for its associate’s degree in graphic design, yet only 12% of completers finish on-time, and those who graduate typically earn less  than $22,000 per year and have over $40,000 in federal student loan debt. 

These and other failing programs are leaving students worse off than before they enrolled, and taxpayer dollars should not be subsidizing them.

The good news is programs like these are now required to warn current and prospective students that they failed and will lose eligibility for federal grants and loans next year if they do not improve. This warning requirement was not affected by the Department’s announcement yesterday. And other failing programs have stopped enrolling new students, including all of the failing programs at the University of Phoenix, and Harvard University’s graduate certificate program in theater arts, where students typically graduated with $78,000 in debt but earned only $36,000.

Even better news? There are thousands of career education programs offered at locations across the country and online that are not leaving graduates with huge debts they cannot repay, including programs at for-profit, public, and non-profit colleges whose graduates earn over $60,000 a year. Many programs where graduates have manageable or no debt are offered near programs that are failing or in the zone requiring improvement. For instance, two for-profit colleges in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, offer medical/clinical assisting certificate programs, but the graduates of Keystone Technical Institute typically earn $10,000 more and have significantly less debt than graduates of the Brightwood Career Institute. In Miami, Florida, graduates of the public Miami Dade College’s medical/clinical assisting certificate program typically have no debt and earn twice as much as the graduates of the same program at the nearby for-profit Florida Education Institute, where graduates also have thousands of dollars of debt.

Thanks to the gainful employment rule, career education programs are required to disclose key information like their cost, typical graduate earnings and debt levels, and job placement rates so students can make more informed decisions about where to enroll. Programs that fail the rule’s minimum standards also have to warn current and prospective students. And to protect taxpayers from subsidizing programs that consistently underperform and leave students worse off, failing and zone programs have to improve in order to continue to receive federal funding.

In anticipation of the rule, many schools have already improved their programs, ended failing programs, lowered their prices, and/or started providing more career placement assistance. These are positive reforms, but the hundreds of failing and zone programs demonstrate that far more improvement is needed to ensure that the more than $24 billion in federal grants and loans spent each year on career education programs are improving, not ruining, people’s lives. 

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The final gainful employment rule released last week eliminated a key accountability measure for career education programs. As a result, many programs that would have failed the draft rule will now pass the final rule.  While some have argued that this change was made to benefit public institutions, it’s clear that for-profit colleges – and the University of Phoenix in particular – were the biggest winners.

The draft rule released in March measured career education program outcomes in two ways. First, the debt burdens of program graduates who received federal aid would be compared to their later earnings. Second, students’ ability to repay their loans – including both graduates and noncompleters – would be measured through a program-level cohort default rate, or pCDR. But the final rule uses only one measure: the debt to earnings ratio of program graduates, or DTE.

There are 682 programs that failed the draft rule’s pCDR test but pass the final rule (including those exempted because they have very few graduates). The vast majority of these programs - 89% - are at for-profit colleges, and for-profit college programs account for 97% of the now-passing programs’ defaulters. University of Phoenix programs alone account for 43% of the defaulters at programs that pass the final rule because the pCDR was eliminated.

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The release of the final gainful employment rule today is a step in the right direction, but the following examples of programs that meet the final standards make clear just how modest a step it is.

The draft rule released in March would have measured career education program outcomes in two ways. First, the debt burdens of program graduates who received federal aid would be compared to their later earnings. Second, students’ ability to repay their loans – including both graduates and noncompleters – would be measured through a program-level cohort default rate.

Based on the data released in conjunction with the draft rule, we identified 114 career education programs where more students default than graduate. In other words, these are programs where students receiving federal aid to attend these programs are more likely to find themselves unable to repay their debt than they are to complete the program. The particularly shocking part was that, under the draft rule, 20% of these programs passed the Department’s proposed tests, underscoring the need for the rule to be strengthened.

So, what does final rule, which eliminated the use of program-level cohort default rates, mean for those 114 programs that we called parasitic because of their consumption of resources to the detriment of students and taxpayers? It means that 15 more of them will pass the gainful employment tests (in addition to the 23 that passed the draft rule’s tests). Fully one-third (33%) of the 114 parasitic programs would now pass, giving schools no incentive to improve them.

Of the 15 newly passing programs, seven are at the University of Phoenix and include the following:

  • The associate’s degree in web page, digital/multimedia and information resources design, from which the almost 1,600 borrowers who entered repayment defaulted at a rate of 47%.
  • The associate’s degree in corrections and criminal justice, with a cohort default rate of 44% and where the number of defaulters exceeded the number of graduates by more than 3,000.
  • The associate’s degree in professional, technical, business, and scientific writing, where more than four times as many students default as graduate (316 students default vs. 70 students who complete).

For more information about the final gainful employment rule and what more should be done, see our statement here.

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On Saturday, June 30, a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a decision in APSCU v. Arne Duncan et al which challenged the Department of Education’s gainful employment regulations. Those regulations apply to career education programs at public, nonprofit and for-profits colleges and were set to go into effect on July 1.

TICAS Vice President Pauline Abernathy issued the following statement in reaction to the ruling:

The Federal District Court decision issued this weekend leaves students and taxpayers exposed to unscrupulous schools that seek to swindle them and routinely saddle students with debts they cannot repay.

However, the court decision did affirm both the Education Department’s authority to enforce the gainful employment provisions in the law and the need to do so.  The court concluded that “The Department has set out to address a serious policy problem, regulating pursuant to a reasonable interpretation of its statutory authority….Concerned about inadequate programs and unscrupulous institutions, the Department has gone looking for rats in ratholes—as the statute empowers it to do.”

The court ruled that the Department did not provide adequate rationale for picking the 35% threshold for program repayment rates, leading it to vacate the entire rule as a result.  The decision faults the rationale for the 35% threshold, not the importance of the repayment rate measure, which effectively assesses the extent to which a program’s former students are able to pay down their loan principal.  Indeed, nearly two years ago, dozens of organizations advocating for students, consumers, higher education, civil rights and college access urged the Department to raise the repayment rate threshold, writing, “This standard is simply too low to demonstrate that programs are adequately preparing students for gainful employment.”

With student debt levels rising and 30 state attorneys general from both parties jointly investigating for-profit college industry practices, the need for action has never been more urgent.  To protect students and taxpayers, we call on the Administration to swiftly respond to this court decision and on Congress to promptly adopt bipartisan legislation that prohibits any school from using taxpayer dollars to advertise and recruit students and closes the “90-10 Rule” loophole that allows schools to count GI Bill funds and Department of Defense Tuition Assistance as private rather than federal dollars.

 

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