The for-profit college industry is taking fire  from all directions  because a substantial number of for-profit colleges offer aggressively marketed programs of little value  in the job market, leaving individuals unable to repay their debts and saddling taxpayers with the default burden. Much of the bad press is deserved, but the atmosphere of scandal and abuse detracts from a larger point: We have failed to adequately connect college and careers. The current abuses are but the worst-case examples of this failure.
This failure has broader implications because a postsecondary credential has become the prerequisite for middle class earnings, but there are enormous discrepancies in earnings returns between different credentials. Sometimes, a particular certificate is worth more than a particular bachelor’s degree. For example, 27 percent of people with licenses and certificates earn more than the average bachelor’s degree recipient does. This information is not intuitive, but it is available, and prospective students should have access to it to understand what they’re getting.
Like it or not, postsecondary education is already almost entirely occupational. All certificates and occupational associate degrees are intended to have labor market value. Academic associate degrees have minimal return unless they lead to a bachelor’s. Only 3 percent of bachelor’s degrees are liberal arts, general studies, and humanities degrees -- the remaining 97 percent have an occupational focus. (Add in English, philosophy, religion, and cultural and ethnic studies and you're up to 8 percent.) Moreover, for most students, liberal arts degrees are preparation for graduate and professional degrees, virtually all of which are intended to prepare students for careers.
The current dust-up shouldn’t be about for-profit colleges being all bad, nor about public colleges being off the hook. Rather, we should attempt to use data to find out which colleges are performing for their students.
The current scandal has arisen because of bad information. Slick subway ads and glossy brochures will not suffice to provide potential students weighing their options with accurate career advice. There is a real alternative to late-night infomercials that promise undeliverable outcomes. In fact, the detailed elements of such a system already exist -- including unemployment insurance wage records, transcript and program data, job openings data, and detailed information on occupational competencies.
It’s just a matter of putting them together effectively -- some states have already built the rudiments of such systems -- and making the information publicly available and in online, user-friendly formats.
To build this data system, wage record data would have to be tied to transcript data. Wage record data, which is actual wages at the individual level as reported by an employer, has been around since the late 1930s and is used to verify eligibility for unemployment insurance. These records are held at the state level by employment services agencies, and are also given to the federal government every three months. Transcript data is not currently collected by any federal agency, but is available in varying degrees in all but five states. Eleven states have already linked their transcript and wage record data, and are able to track earnings returns to postsecondary programs. Only seven states can link transcript and wage record data for programs at proprietary schools. This system is still nascent, but has enormous potential to help students evaluate their options, as well as inform institutions in planning new programs and evaluating existing ones.
Building a user-friendly interface is the next step, if we wish for this information to be useful for consumers. Imagine being able, with a few clicks and keystrokes, to explore various careers, find out how many jobs are currently available in the field, how many there are likely to be over the next several years in your area, what education and training programs exist in your local area and online, what they cost, what financial aid is available, and what the average salaries are for graduates of each program. Such a system would empower individuals to choose careers that would truly benefit them, and encourage institutions to offer programs that would prepare them for the jobs that will actually exist.
Such an information system would not eliminate, but would reduce, the future need for intrusive federal oversight or expensive additional state-level regulation. Further, such information systems that connect postsecondary programs with labor markets represent a savings to the taxpayer, improving efficiency in matching programs to careers and curbing the enormous cost of student loan default.
Educators and others may worry that tying curriculums to careers may subjugate education to economics. We clearly need to aspire to a pragmatic balance between postsecondary education’s growing economic role and its traditional cultural and political independence from economic forces. While it is important that we not lose sight of the non-economic benefits of education, the economic role of postsecondary education -- especially in preparing American youth for work and helping adults stay abreast of economic change -- is also central to the educator’s broader mission to cultivate thoughtful individuals.
The inescapable reality is that ours is a society based on work. Those who are not equipped with the skills and credentials necessary to get, and keep, good jobs are denied full social inclusion and tend to drop out of the mainstream culture, polity, and economy. In the worst cases, they are drawn into alternative cultures, political movements, and economic activities that are a threat to mainstream American life.
The current abuses are a wake-up call -- they signal the disenfranchisement of students who are denied access to the middle class and full social inclusion because they lack information on what kind of education can get them there.
Anthony P. Carnevale is director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Economy, and Michelle Melton and Laura Meyer are research associates there.