College student
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Earlier this year, Donald Trump said this to a group of Republican lawmakers: “Today you have community colleges and you have all of the—when I was growing up we had vocational schools . . . You learn mechanical, you learn bricklaying and carpentry and all of these things. We don’t have that very much anymore. And I think the word ‘vocational’ is a much better word than in many cases a community college. A lot of people don’t know what a community college means or represents.”

Donald Trump says a lot of ignorant things. But in this case he was reflecting a blind spot common among American elites. For all the talk in political and policy circles about the need for skilled workers, most members of the leadership class have no real concept of how millions of working-class Americans actually get the skills they need for better jobs.

The answer is that they primarily do so by earning vocational certificates. These are credentials that typically take a year or so to get and provide job skills to work in particular fields—say, as a dental assistant, an auto mechanic, or, yes, a bricklayer. And they are mostly provided by, you guessed it, community colleges (for-profit schools are the second biggest purveyor, and private nonprofit colleges are a distant third).

Check out the complete 2018 Washington Monthly rankings here. 

None of this is news to members of the working class who rely on these credentials to get ahead in life. On average, certificate holders earn about 20 percent more per year than those with just a high school degree, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. And while the president seems to think vocational education is in decline, the number of such certificates awarded has, in fact, been climbing for years, from about 566,000 in 1998–99 to about 1.06 million in 2013–14, the latest year for which federal data is available.

In a way, Trump’s cluelessness is understandable. The major media outlets, Fox News included, seldom cover community colleges, preferring to focus on the elite four-year schools that most journalists themselves attended. U.S. News & World Report doesn’t even bother to rank community colleges.

The Washington Monthly is different. We were the first publication to rank America’s best community colleges, back in 2007 (we did so again in 2009, 2010, and 2013). Other outlets have since followed suit. But all those rankings are based on two-year associate’s degrees. No publication has ever ranked certificate programs.

Until now. In this issue, we inaugurate our first-ever ranking of America’s best colleges for vocational certificates. To create the rankings, we pulled numbers from the U.S. Department of Education’s “gainful employment” database, released in the final weeks of the Obama administration. This is the data behind a controversial regulation of the same name that would cut off federal student financial aid to career-oriented schools whose students earn so little after graduation that they can’t pay back their loans. We selected the twelve most common undergraduate certificate programs (welding, medical office assistant, and so on) and ranked the colleges that offer them by the median earnings of their students three years after graduation. For informational purposes, we also show the median debt-to-earnings ratios, annual debt payments, estimated total debt, and outcome under gainful employment—pass, at risk (“zone”), or fail—for the schools. You can see the full rankings here

Looking at the lists, the first thing you might notice is that some of these programs—nursing, welding, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning)—lead to relatively decent-paying careers. For instance, graduates from the HVAC program at Perry Technical Institute, a private nonprofit college in Washington State, make $47,685 annually three years after graduating. That’s nearly twice what a typical American age twenty-five to thirty-four with only a high school degree makes a year.

Some other programs, however—skin care, medical clinic assistant—don’t lead to high incomes. Graduates of the number 1 school for cosmetology, Josef’s School of Hair Design in Fargo, North Dakota, make only $26,432. That statistic is a bit deceptive in that cosmetologists—as well as massage therapists and others in direct-service fields—can also garner substantial tip income that doesn’t show up in these numbers. But back-office professionals, like medical office assistants and pharmacy techs, aren’t earning tip income—just low salaries.

Another thing you’ll notice is the huge disparity between the best and worst schools in each field. For instance, students who earned certificates in medical insurance coding from Columbus State Community College in Ohio, the top-scoring school in that category, have median annual incomes of $35,250 three years out. That’s almost four times more than the $9,796 earned by graduates of Bryan University in Springfield, Missouri, a for-profit. And Bryan grads are saddled with more than twice the amount of debt ($13,720) as Columbus State grads ($5,782).

The gap is even bigger in other fields. Welding certificate holders from top-ranked Northern Wyoming Community College make six times more per year ($52,225) than those who attended bottom-ranked Peninsula College in Washington State ($8,739). The earnings differential for massage therapists is ten to one.

To put these disparities into perspective, students of Harvard University, the top school on our list of four-year national universities, earned about $90,000 ten years after entering. That’s only two and a third times the roughly $38,000 annual income of those who attended Argosy University in Orange County, California, the lowest-performing school on that list. And Harvard is highly selective, whereas Argosy is “open admissions”—it accepts almost all applicants. You’d expect the gap between four-year schools to be much bigger than the one separating the best and worst certificate-granting schools, nearly all of which are open admissions. Instead, it’s the other way around.

What this tells you is that the performance of the schools at the bottom of the certificates rankings is not just relatively bad—it is absolutely, screamingly, catastrophically bad. Consider this: A full-time worker who is paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour earns an annual income of $15,080. The students from all but one of the colleges on the twelve “worst” lists make less than that—in some cases, way, way less. Massage therapy graduates of Intercoast Colleges, a for-profit chain in Orange, California, that ranks dead last in that field, earn $2,707 a year. And that’s median earnings—meaning half of them make less. Certificates from such schools are worse than useless—they’re toxic, because they typically saddle students with debts they may never be able to pay off.

What kinds of schools are these? Our rankings make that clear, too. Some of the worst-performing institutions in these categories are community colleges, a fact that may confound liberals who defend public colleges. The vast majority, however, are for-profits, a fact that ought to trouble conservatives. To scramble expectations even further, note that a few of the best-performing colleges are for-profits, though the great majority are community colleges.

Shutting down the worst-performing certificate-granting schools—regardless of whether they are for-profit, nonprofit, or public—would be a major advance in the fight against inequality and a big help to working-class Americans looking to get ahead. That’s what the gainful employment rule—created by the Obama administration against tremendous resistance from Republicans and the for-profit college industry—was set up to do.

Earlier this year, however, Trump’s Education Department proposed eliminating the rule’s sanctions against low-performing schools. Then, this summer, the New York Times reported that the department was considering abandoning the gainful employment rule altogether in favor of a system that would reveal program-level earnings and debt data for all colleges, not just those that grant certificates. Such a reporting system would actually be a step forward for transparency, but without sanctions against low-performing schools it wouldn’t provide much accountability.

Implicit in Trump’s endorsement of vocational education is that it is universally a wonderful thing. Many elites voice the same sentiments—including lawmakers in both parties who have recently proposed making shorter-term certificate programs eligible for federal student aid (see Jared Bass and Clare McCann, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Higher Education Policy.”). But while the instinct to put more resources into vocational education is right—it could help more Americans attain the better-paying “middle skill” jobs many companies these days find hard to fill—the undifferentiated enthusiasm for the idea bespeaks an ignorance of what the reality of that education looks like. Our hope is that these new rankings will shed light on that reality, while helping prospective students find the best colleges, and avoid the worst.

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.