Press "Enter" to skip to content

WCC Should Disclose Gainful Employment Strategy

The Biden Administration has made clear its plans to resuscitate the Obama-era “Gainful Employment” rules for higher education institutions. The Gainful Employment rules attempt to apply outcome-based measures to college and university programs. Schools whose graduates earn too little to repay their student loans risk losing the ability to award federal financial aid.

In the Biden Era, the reconstituted debt-to-earnings rules will extend down to the program. That means the Department of Education may restrict federal financial aid for some programs an institution offers, while allowing aid for others.

Community colleges face a special risk with the rebooted financial aid rules. The new standards compare graduates’ earnings to those of high school graduates. Using current program data, half of all certificate programs (offered by any institution) would fail the “high school” test.

When limiting the study to publicly funded 2-year community college certificate programs, about one-in-five would fail. This could be devastating to someplace like Washtenaw Community College, where 60% of its academic offerings are non-degree certificates. If 1 out of every 5 certificate programs at WCC failed the “high school” test, that would be 18 certificate programs that no longer qualified for federal financial aid.

That’s only one facet of the problem, though. Community college programs (degree and non-degree) appeal to women and minorities. There’s nothing inherently sinister about that. Community colleges are supposed to help low-income earners and non-traditional students. However, losing federal financial aid would be a death sentence for an academic program.

I’m all for closing crap programs. If a program leaves its graduates with a high debt-to-earnings ratio, it’s probably not worth saving. But women and minorities will get caught when programs collapse.

Certifying Gainful Employment status before students enter

Students – especially those with limited means – should not be subject to the uncertainty and risk of the Gainful Employment standards. The WCC Board of Trustees should insist that the WCC Administration publicly certify that each degree and certificate program in the catalog meets the new standards. Every incoming student should know with certainty that their educational program of choice will not leave them with high debt and inadequate income.

Further, the WCC Administration should guarantee that a program’s Gainful Employment status will not change while a student is actively pursuing a credential. If a program does begin failing the Gainful Employment standards, the WCC Trustees should require the WCC Administration to refund all tuition or fees paid by students who have not yet completed the program.

The Department of Education is close to completing the new Gainful Employment rules. The community deserves to know what programs at WCC are at risk of failing the new standards, and how the WCC Administration intends to remediate them.

Photo Credit: GPA Photo Archive, via Flickr