Down Debt

Many certificate programs don’t pay, but colleges want to keep them

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Vanessa Valenciano had high hopes for the certificate she earned at the public Aims Community College in Colorado. After all, colleges have advertised these types of degrees as the next best thing to graduating.

But when Valenciano tried to get a job in the subject she studied – car upholstery – she couldn’t. There weren’t any near her, and those further away required work experience that she didn’t have.

“Here in this area, there’s really nothing, and I guess I didn’t realize it,” she said. The certificate that took him months to obtain and now costs around $2,000 has not been used as Valenciano is now trying to start his own business in another area.

Certificates are the fastest growing type of degree in higher education, touted as solutions for the growing number of people who want quick workforce training and don’t have the time to get a degree.

Some certificate programs are chargeable. On average, workers with a certificate earn about 20% more than those with only a high school diploma, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

But new research from the nonprofit National Student Legal Defense Network and academics at George Washington University shows nearly two-thirds of undergraduate certificate programs left their students worse off than the typical high school graduate. , earning an average of less than $25,000 a year. The analysis used data from 2015, the latest available at the time, although more recent government statistics produce a similar conclusion.

And while most of those failing certificate programs are at for-profit colleges, which have long been criticized for leaving graduates with low incomes and sometimes extreme debt, nearly a quarter are at colleges. and public universities.

The Department of Education has proposed regulations that would set a similar pay threshold for career certificate programs across industries and for all for-profit degree programs. Programs whose graduates earn less than the median salary of a worker with only a high school diploma in their state would lose access to federal financial aid. A certain high ratio of student loan debt to income would also trigger such a threshold.

“The goal is not necessarily to withdraw funds and close programs. It encourages institutions to create better programs,” said Eddy Conroy, senior education policy adviser at left-leaning think tank New America. “If you come out of a higher education program, you should be able to earn more than the average high school graduate.”

But public universities, community colleges and nonprofit colleges have now joined for-profit institutions in pushing back against proposed regulations, which the Department of Education is likely to formally introduce this summer in a bid to finalize a rule by November 1.

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Public and nonprofit colleges often leave students with less debt than their for-profit counterparts. But advocates for the regulations say debt isn’t the only way to measure what students give up to earn a degree.

“Students are still spending time and money,” said Stephanie Cellini, a professor of public policy and economics at George Washington University and co-author of the research analysis that found most undergraduate certificate programs do not report. “They have a cost, they are out of labor.”

Meanwhile, some certificate programs result in very low earnings.

Take a legal secretary certificate at a university, for example, whose website advertises that a legal secretary can earn anywhere from $29,534 to $48,910. But the reality is that graduates of the program earn a median of $18,495 three years later, according to the most recent data from the Department of Education.

This program is not run by a for-profit college, but by the online branch of Purdue University, the state flagship of Indiana.

“We are proud of our graduates and their successes,” Thomas Schott, spokesman for Purdue’s online branch, wrote in an email. He said the figures do not reflect the individual circumstances of graduates, who may, for example, choose to work part-time.

Most low-paying undergraduate certificates at public institutions are found at community colleges. Graduates with a practical nursing certificate from Triton College, a public community college in Illinois, for example, earn an average of about $18,000 per year. (Triton said data on its students’ earnings was collected in 2014.) While George Washington’s study didn’t specify why some certificates have low earnings, other research shows that those who do make are grouped into certain fields of study, such as cosmetology. .

“There seems to be a misperception most of the time that higher education is just a golden ticket,” said Preston Cooper, a researcher at the Equal Opportunities Research Foundation, who studies the return on investment in education. “It turns out that’s not always the case.

A Hechinger Report analysis of the Education Department’s most recent data, released in March, found that 20% of public programs, 45% of nonprofit programs, and 66% of nonprofit undergraduate certificate programs lucrative with enough graduates to release earnings data would fail. proposed test to determine whether graduates earn more than people with only high school diplomas.

Some disciplines would fare less well than others. Of the 653 cosmetology certificate programs with published earnings data, for example, 640 would fail the test.

Emmanuel Guillory, director of student and institutional aid policy at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represented nonprofit institutions in negotiations with the Department of Education, said the threshold revenue might be a good idea, but other concerns prompted him to vote against the regulations. For example, he said, the ministry has not offered a mechanism for institutions to appeal.

“I understand the ministry is trying to go after bad actors. I believe they should be addressed,” Guillory said. “I just want to make sure that before any official action we know for sure that the data is the most accurate data in order to take that action.”

Institutions also expressed concerns about the lack of time they had to consider new wording for the regulations. Other critics have argued that tying government funding to graduate earnings could cause institutions to enroll fewer students of color and first-generation students because workplace discrimination and other factors can dampen their earnings. possible. According to research by researchers at Vanderbilt University, certificate programs that serve more students from underrepresented minorities have lower earnings.

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Ernest Ezeugo, director of higher education policy at Young Invincibles, a nonprofit focused on issues affecting young adults, held the sole seat in the negotiations to represent students.

“There is something morally obsolete about the idea that we would not protect students of all backgrounds from participating in programs that cannot actually deliver on the promises they make for the majority of their students,” he said. he declared.

At the heart of conversations about accountability are questions about the liability of any individual higher education institution. When the job market has set low pay for, say, certified practical nurses — jobs that pay less than $15 an hour — should colleges stop training workers to do those jobs?

“You could have a really high-quality degree — really well-crafted, quality content — and still have poor earnings outcomes,” said Michelle Van Noy, director of the Center for Education and Research. Rutgers University job. “I certainly agree that low income is a real problem, but I don’t know if that means childcare workers shouldn’t be training.”

At least one college has taken a close look at graduate earnings without being prompted by new regulations. Texas State Technical College chose in 2011 to tie its public funding to the income boost it confers, calculated as the difference between student earnings five years after graduation and the state minimum wage. .

Since then, the income of its graduates has increased by 140%, said Michael Reeser, Chancellor. But the policy has resulted in tough decisions, including the closure of more than a dozen programs in areas including culinary arts, agricultural technology, chemical technology and computer maintenance.

“Like any type of change in a product line, when it impacts people, it’s really, really difficult,” Reeser said. “But on the other hand, we owe it to the taxpayers who support this college to consistently spend their public funds in a way that produces the most benefit for the student and the employers.”

This story about certificate programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Subscribe to our higher education newsletter.