Gainful Employment Data Provide Public Value

Published Jan 23, 2017

by: Amanda Janice Roberson

The Department of Education (ED) recently released the first debt-to-earnings rates for career training programs, a requirement of the Gainful Employment (GE) rule. Under current regulation, data collected under this rule exist for both accountability and transparency purposes. While the GE regulations themselves are a contentious topic on Capitol Hill, greater transparency in higher education can only benefit students, families, and policymakers. Students have a right to know their potential post-college outcomes and to understand how colleges and programs serve students. Policymakers appropriate billions of dollars for higher education financing annually—fiscal responsibility should demand their interest in program-level data, like debt-to-earnings rates, earnings, repayment rates, and cohort default rates.

The recently released GE data include the debt-to-earnings ratio, along with important underlying or contextual data, like mean and median annual earnings and median debt. Because the rate alone may not resonate with students and families, these contextual data points help consumers understand the practical meaning behind the rates, making them useful for someone making a decision about her future in higher education. For example, a potential student is more likely to understand that a program’s graduates typically earn $40,000 after taking out $20,000 in debt than that the program’s debt-to-earnings ratio is 0.50.

These data on student outcomes provide a value to the public, especially for low-income and underserved students, who often begin their college careers with less “college knowledge” than their peers. The addition of these data to the public sphere has the potential to narrow this disparity. Outcome data like earnings and debt-to-income ratios illuminate whether student and government investment in the program yielded acceptable results and can serve to inform choices. The importance of these data in promoting transparency should not be understated, as the results show how career-training programs serve their students. Particularly for the nation’s 21st century student population, outcomes matter.