Gainful Employment and the Federal Ability to Sanction Colleges

The U.S. Department of Education’s second attempt at “gainful employment” regulations, which apply to the majority of vocationally-oriented programs at for-profit colleges and certain nondegree programs at public and private nonprofit colleges, was released to the public this morning. The Department’s first effort in 2010 was struck down by a federal judge after the for-profit sector challenged a loan repayment rate metric on account of it requiring additional student data collection that would be illegal under current federal law.

The 2014 measure was widely expected to contain two components: a debt-to-earning s ratio that required program completers to have annual loan debt be less than 8% of total income or 20% of “discretionary income” above 150% of the poverty line, and a cohort default rate measure that required fewer than 30% of program borrowers (regardless of completion status) to default on federal loans in less than three years. As excellent articles on the newly released measure in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed this morning detail, the cohort default rate measure was unexpectedly dropped from the final regulation. This change in rules, Inside Higher Ed reports, would reduce the number of affected programs from 1,900 to 1,400 and the number of affected students from about one million to 840,000.

There will be a number of analyses of the exact details of gainful employment over the coming days (I highly recommend anything written by Ben Miller at the New America Foundation), but I want to briefly discuss on what the changes to the gainful employment rule mean for other federal accountability policies. Just over a month ago, the Department of Education released cohort default rate data, but they tweaked a calculation at the last minute that had the effect of allowing more colleges to get under the 30% default rate threshold at least once in three years to avoid sanctions.

The last-minute changes to both gainful employment and cohort default rate accountability measures highlight the political difficulty of the current sanctioning system, which is on an all-or-nothing basis. When the only funding lever the federal government uses is so crude, colleges have a strong incentive to lobby against rules that could effectively shut them down. It is long past time for the Department of Education to consider sliding sanctions against colleges with less-than-desirable outcomes if the goal is to eventually cut off financial aid to the poorest performing institutions.

Finally, the successful lobbying efforts of different sectors of higher education make it appear less likely that the Obama Administration’s still-forthcoming Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS) will be able to tie financial aid to college ratings. This measure still requires Congressional approval, but the Department of Education’s willingness to propose sanctions has been substantially weakened over the last month. It remains to be seen if the Department of Education under the current administration will propose how PIRS will be tied to aid before the clock runs out on the Obama presidency.

Author: Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.