[This post is largely adapted from a previous post that ran on Higher Ed Watch in October 2011.]
Last week I argued that the U.S. Department of Education needs to develop a single, national standard that for-profit colleges would be required to use when calculating job placement rates. Department officials could go a long way in achieving this by revisiting a proposal they offered in the summer of 2010 that would have established a standard methodology to use when determining these rates.
Currently, the federal government leaves it up to accrediting agencies and states to set the standards that for-profit schools must use to calculate the rates, and to monitor them. The only exception is for extremely short-term job training programs, which must have employment rates of at least 70 percent to remain eligible to participate in the federal student loan program.
In June 2010, as part of a package of draft regulations aimed at improving the integrity of the federal student aid programs, the administration proposed extending the standards that short-term programs are required to use to all for-profit college and vocational programs that are subject to the Gainful Employment rules. The proposal was met with a firestorm of protest from for-profit college officials, as the federal methodology is much more strict than that used by accreditors and state agencies.
For example, under the Education Department’s requirements, students are only considered to be successfully placed if they have been employed in their field or a related one for at least 13 weeks within the first six months after graduating. In comparison, some accreditors and state agencies apparently allow schools to consider a graduate to be successfully placed if they work in their field for as little as a day.
Meanwhile, the Education Department has established a strict regulatory regime to make sure the rates are not rigged (the extent to which the agency actually holds short-term programs to these standards is unclear). Institutions are required to provide documentation proving that each of the graduates included in their rates is employed in the field in which he or she trained. According to the Department’s rules, acceptable documents “include, but are not limited to, (i) a written statement from the student’s employer; (ii) signed copies of State or Federal income tax forms; and (iii) written evidence of payments of Social Security taxes.”
To be fair, for-profit colleges were not the only institutions that objected to the proposal. Community colleges and state universities that have training programs that fall under the Gainful Employment requirements also complained that the plan was too stringent. These institutions may have found these requirements to be especially daunting since they generally have not had to track job placements before.
A Recipe for Failure
How did the Education Department’s political leaders respond to this criticism? They punted. Instead of sticking to their guns or devising an alternative proposal, they kicked the issue to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Under the final program integrity regulations, which were released in October 2010, the Department directed the NCES to convene a Technical Review Panel “to develop a placement rate methodology and the processes necessary for determining and documenting student placement” that schools would be required to use to fulfill this mandate.
But putting NCES in charge of developing a federal standard for calculating these rates turned out to be a major blunder. First, this was not an assignment that the NCES had sought out or has typically been asked to do. After all, the Department was not just asking the center to provide technical assistance in devising a new methodology but to take the reins in setting a new federal policy in this highly contentious and controversial area. Second, the Technical Review Panel that the Department chose to carry out this assignment included a number of representatives from schools that were opposed to this effort.
All of this was a recipe for failure. So it was hardly a surprise that, after two days of discussions on this topic in March, the review committee was not able to reach an agreement. The panel suggested in a final report on its deliberations that "the topic be explored in greater detail by the Department of Education.” Translation: This is a job for the Department, and not NCES.
The Education Department's hands have been tied since because the final regulations explicitly require schools to use "a methodology developed by the National Center for Education Statistics, when that rate is available." In the meantime, the job placement rates that for-profit colleges are required to disclose under the new rules are the same ones they report to accreditors and state regulatory agencies. As I've written previously, the methodologies that for-profit schools use to calculate these rates vary state by state and accreditor by accreditor, making them impossible to compare. And because neither accreditors nor state regulators have historically put much of an effort into verifying these rates, the schools don’t seem to have any qualms about gaming them.
As Department officials rewrite the Gainful Employment rules, they need to revisit this issue. Otherwise, prospective students will have to continue relying on faulty information when choosing whether to attend a for-profit college.