This morning, the Department of Education released thousands of previously unavailable outcomes records for students in career-oriented post-secondary education programs. We can now see, for a subset of schools, the earnings of graduates by the major and school a student attends. This is critical information given that prospective students list top reasons they go to college as improving their employment opportunities and making more money. The general public also has an interest in the return on investment for these programs, given that states and the federal government spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year to help students attend postsecondary programs. The big problem with this information? We still don’t have it for all students.
Selected earnings data is being made available thanks to an Obama administration regulation on “gainful employment,” which requires career-oriented programs to meet certain benchmarks, providing added transparency to prospective students as well as taxpayers. A Republican-controlled House has already voted to repeal program integrity regulations such as these, while the Senate has indicated they’d like to do the same. While Trump has said very little about many of his plans for higher education, regulations like these stand little chance of surviving. That’s a huge loss for future students: transparency around outcomes is not only crucial for students deciding between programs, but also a useful strategy to prevent fraudulent behavior among an abundance of potential bad actors.
As is clear from the table below, earnings information could help students enormously. However, deciding on a particular school is not necessarily the decision that’s most critical to students futures. While often overlooked, picking a field of study is just as influential, at least for career-oriented schools subject to gainful employment regulations. For example, students at Strayer University can expect to earn $68,000 dollars if they pursue a Bachelor’s in Information Sciences, but just $26,000 dollars if they pursue an Associate’s degree in Criminal Justice. Interestingly, program length is not determinative of which graduates will be most successful: all of Strayer’s undergraduate certificate programs had average earnings above that of their Associate’s in Criminal Justice. A similar divergence in earnings outcomes is likely taking place at more traditional academic institutions, as we can see from state-level data made public in places like California and Texas. Yet how employment outcomes differ for programs not covered by gainful employment rules in other states remains a mystery, since not all states have such transparency--and even those that do have huge holes--something a new administration committed to ensuring that postsecondary education provides real opportunities in the labor market could easily take on. (Explore the graphic below to see earnings outcomes at different schools).
At the same time, once students have decided on a major, picking the right school is critical. For example, students interested in fields like health care might have heard about the bright prospects of their career path. But it turns out that the school a student attends also matters enormously. Since many students are also place-bound, looking at earnings outcomes within a metropolitan area makes the most sense. Below, we see average earnings for graduates in Los Angeles County pursuing careers in health care. While factors such as the length and the cost of a degree are extremely salient for many students, earnings outcomes are also critical in understanding the value proposition of a particular program. For example, someone with an undergraduate certificate in Medical Assisting from Westech College earns on average just $10,000 per year - well below the poverty line for a single adult. While a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) certification takes longer to complete, graduates from Saddleback College will go on earn nearly six times as much. The same LPN degree at Summit College gets graduates about $30,000 per year - just over half of the average earnings for Saddleback College graduates. It’s true then, that both the field of study and institution should be considered in student’s enrollment decisions - exploring the interactive map below shows just how true this statement is.
What's more, we can expect these outcomes data to be even more important under President-elect Trump’s higher education plan. He’s proposed utilizing “technology enriched delivery models” in higher education. This jives well with congressional Republican support for “new” and “innovative” models. If this instinct to expand innovation in higher education through new delivery models comes to fruition, these outcomes data will be even more important than ever as one of the only vehicle for holding schools accountable for the quality of skill-building that takes place within their walls (virtual or otherwise)
While employment outcomes are not the be all end all of higher education, this information plays a critical role for students who view improved earnings and employment prospects as key reasons for enrolling in a given school. Students in all types of postsecondary programs deserve to know exactly what it is they’re signing up for, and earnings information is a major part of that equation.