Boarding Up a Window on Vocational Ed

Rescinding the gainful-employment rule will mean important performance data will disappear from public view, write Paul Glastris and Robert Kelchen.

November 20, 2018

In late summer, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that her department will repeal the gainful-employment rule, one of Barack Obama’s hallmark efforts to hold colleges more accountable for their performance. Released in the Obama administration’s final weeks, after years of resistance from Republicans and the for-profit college industry, the regulation -- which never went into effect under the Trump administration -- would have cut off federal financial aid to career-focused institutions whose graduates earn so little that they can’t pay back their loans.

DeVos’s decision has since drawn a legal challenge, her department recently blew a deadline in the process to rescind it, and newly empowered House Democrats may try to further delay or even scuttle it by tying a return to the Obama-era gainful-employment regulations onto a must-pass funding bill. But if her decision ultimately stands, tens of billions of federal tax dollars will continue to flow to subpar vocational certificate programs in fields like auto mechanics and cosmetology, which are typically offered by for-profit schools and community colleges.

But DeVos’s decision will have another, less appreciated consequence. To administer the gainful-employment rule, the department created a database of information on the annual median earnings and debt levels of graduates of vocational certificate programs. This granular data provides an unparalleled window into the country’s vocational education system, which millions of working-class Americans -- many of whom voted for Donald Trump -- rely on to obtain economic security. That window will now be boarded up.

The Washington Monthly magazine, where we work, recently released the first-ever ranking of the best -- and worst -- colleges for vocational certificates based on the same data. This ranking shares data from the Department of Education on the typical earnings and debt burdens of students who graduated from vocational certificate programs across public, private nonprofit and for-profit colleges. We then ordered the data for some of the most common programs by median earnings to provide a window into these programs’ outcomes. The picture that emerges from our rankings is one of a college-based vocational training system with real strengths but also alarming weaknesses.

On the one hand, students who graduate with certificates in certain fields, such as nursing, welding and heating/air-conditioning repair, can garner solid middle-class salaries. The typical nursing graduate earns nearly $36,000 per year three years after graduating based on data that the Department of Education received from federal tax records, well above the approximately $25,000 income of a young adult with only a high school diploma. On the other hand, certificate holders in other fields actually earn less than those who only finished high school. The typical medical clinic assistant brings in only $18,000 per year. That’s barely more than the $15,080 that someone working full-time at the national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour makes. And the price of tuition for such a certificate can burden a person with thousands of dollars in debt that they may never be able to pay off.

We found even more variation among career programs within the same field. Auto mechanics graduates from Dunwoody College of Technology in Minnesota, the top-scoring institution for that category in the Washington Monthly rankings, earn $38,145 per year, while graduates of Virginia’s Tidewater Tech, the bottom-ranked school, earn just $5,858. The worst-performing institutions in other career categories have even more abysmal results. Massage therapy graduates of one for-profit chain based in California make just $2,707 in taxable income in an entire year. And that is median earnings, meaning half of those graduates earn less.

With results like that, it’s clear why the Obama administration wanted to turn off the spigot of federal funds to the worst-performing vocational colleges -- and why those institutions in turn have a strong interest in shutting off the flow of performance data to the public. In announcing her decision to kill the gainful-employment regulation, DeVos promised to create a new reporting system that would reveal program-level earnings and debt data for all colleges and majors, not just for vocational certificate programs. That would be a step forward for transparency, but there are reasons to doubt the department will follow through.

The first is that the Obama administration had been advocating and working toward creating exactly such a reporting system, and Donald Trump has shown a propensity to do the opposite of whatever Obama did. The second is that the department will be under tremendous pressure from for-profit and lackluster nonprofit colleges, and their defenders in Congress, to block any effort at greater transparency. Finally, an understaffed Department of Education has struggled to meet other deadlines (such as officially repealing gainful employment), and creating a new data system takes a considerable amount of effort.

Even if the department makes good on its promise, it will take years before data are ready to add for all programs. The bottom line, then, is that the first-of-its-kind ranking of college certificate programs that the Washington Monthly has published is likely to be the last of its kind, at least for some years to come.

That would be unfortunate. College is one of the most expensive investments most Americans will ever make. Students and their families need dependable information to help them make their decisions, and college rankings are the most reader-friendly way to provide it. But while students seeking four-year degrees have a dozen popular rankings to consult, those pursuing vocational certificates have previously had nowhere to turn. The same is true for those advising those students, from high school guidance counselors to employers.

Beyond guiding consumer behavior, reliable rankings of certificate programs offer other important benefits. They can provide much-needed validation for administrators at colleges that score well -- and encourage those at other institutions to follow similar practices -- and a measure of shame for those at institutions that score poorly. They can give education reporters material to write stories about institutions they might otherwise ignore. And they can inform public officials who make higher education funding decisions and the voters who hold those officials accountable.

None of these benefits are possible, however, without data that only the federal government can provide. Here’s hoping that the Trump administration will decide, or be forced, to continue to deliver that data.


Paul Glastris (@glastris) is editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. Robert Kelchen (@rkelchen) is the data editor of the Washington Monthly college guide and an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University.

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