In January 2017, as it was preparing to exit Washington, the Obama administration left a little parting gift for the higher education community. It was a list of nearly 800 vocational programs, almost all of them at for-profit colleges, where graduates earned so little, or had to borrow so much, that they couldn’t pay off their student loans.
The list was part of the Department of Education’s new “gainful employment” regulation, a years-in-the-making effort to set minimal standards for career training programs in areas like auto repair and dental assistant. The Washington Monthly used the regulation’s underlying data to create a first-of-its-kind ranking of the Best and Worst Colleges for Vocational Certificates in 2018.
Under the gainful employment rule, the worst-performing programs were supposed to lose eligibility to receive federal student aid. That didn’t happen, because the Trump administration eventually repealed the regulation, claiming that it unfairly targeted for-profit schools.
But a funny thing did happen. Even though the federal funds weren’t cut off, within two years 500 of the 800 failing programs had been shut down or reformed by the 136 colleges that ran them, according to a study by New America, a Washington, D.C., think tank. Indeed, some of the biggest colleges in the for-profit game, such as the Education Corporation of America, with its 70 campuses nationwide, closed their doors entirely. It turns out that being “named and shamed“ was enough to convince many vocational college administrators to clean up their act—or for investors to pull the plug.
During the Trump years, there was very little effective federal scrutiny of the bad-actor trade schools that remained. That’s a shame, because every year countless students—disproportionately military veterans and low-income people of color—get recruited into poor-quality career training programs that load them up with debt without teaching them marketable skills. At the same time, there are better-run certificate programs out there that lead to well-paying jobs—and there is rare bipartisan agreement in Washington that more should be done to help people access such training.
This past March, Joe Biden’s Department of Education unveiled a proposed new version of the gainful employment rule. It features more robust metrics and, to address conservative critics, covers a wider variety of public and nonprofit programs. Unfortunately, because it takes time to go through the rule-making process and accumulate the necessary data—and because the Education Department is understaffed and overwhelmed by other tasks, like student loan reform—the final regulation won’t come out until 2024, and a new list of failing schools won’t be released until 2027, at the earliest.
The editors of the Monthly think that’s too long to wait. That’s why we’ve put together the 2022 Best and Worst Colleges for Vocational Certificates rankings, using Education Department data similar to what the department itself will draw on for its gainful employment calculations. We selected the 10 most common undergraduate certificate programs, like medical assistant, cosmetology, and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) maintenance, then ranked the colleges that offer them by the median earnings of their students one year after graduation—which was 2019, the most recent earnings data available. For informational purposes, we also show the median student debt and debt-to-earnings ratio for each program.
Looking at the lists, the first thing to notice is that some of these programs—nursing, precision metal (welding, fabricating, and so on), health diagnostics (which includes jobs like X-ray technician)—lead to relatively decent-paying careers. For instance, graduates from the top-ranked health diagnostics program at Red Rocks Community College, near Denver, Colorado, earned $87,754 annually. That’s more than double what a typical American ages 25 to 34 with only a high school degree made ($35,410).
Some other programs, however—cosmetology, medical assistant—don’t lead to high incomes. Graduates of the number 1 school for cosmetology, the Lia Schorr Institute of Cosmetic Skin Care Training in New York City, made only $36,823, barely above what a high school graduate brought in—and the rest of the top 10 cosmetology schools returned thousands of dollars below that. The payoff is even worse for those training in “somatic bodywork,” which includes massage therapy. Graduates of the best somatic bodywork program in the nation, the for-profit Sage School of Massage & Esthetics in Bend, Oregon, earned only $24,750. Of course, hairdressers and massage therapists can earn tip income that doesn’t show up in these numbers. Not so for back-office professionals like medical assistants, who don’t earn tips, just low salaries—$37,651 a year for graduates of number 1–ranked Oregon Coast Community College, southwest of Portland.
And that’s for graduates of the best programs. Look at the earnings numbers for the worst-performing programs and you’ll see the real damage an unregulated trade school system inflicts on students of modest means trying to get ahead in life. Graduates in health diagnostics from Germanna Community College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the bottom-of-the-barrel program in that category, earned only $21,585 annually. That’s a quarter of what their peers from top-performing Red Rocks Community College made—and nearly $14,000 less than the income of a typical high school graduate with no postsecondary training at all.
If that doesn’t steam up your glasses, 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. Graduates of all 10 of the worst cosmetology programs, and most of the worst in the somatic bodywork category, earned less than that. They also carry student debt ranging from $5,398 to $12,672—debt that, given the graduates’ penurious incomes, they probably will never be able to pay off.
It’s hard to understand why any elected official, regardless of party, would resist cutting off the flow of federal student aid dollars to schools that fail students so miserably. Yet Republicans have consistently done just that, largely out of a desire to protect for-profit providers. Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos even put a top lawyer for for-profit colleges in charge of the department’s regulatory relief efforts.
Our rankings, however, provide reasons for conservatives to be a little less defensive. When we last ranked certificate programs, four years ago, the great majority of the poorest-performing colleges were for-profits. That’s still the case in some categories this year, like medical assistant and dental support. But in other areas, like nursing and HVAC maintenance, for-profits are no more represented in the top and bottom 10 than are public colleges.
How can that be? One reason is that a lot of the worst for-profit programs got shut down after the Obama administration released its gainful employment failure list in 2017. Another is that for certain professions, like nursing and HVAC maintenance, for-profit vocational colleges have the capacity to train more students, and often train them better, than public ones. That’s because they can finance the expensive equipment needed for instruction through high tuition—and if the instruction is good, the high cost pays off for the students. By contrast, public institutions like community colleges are typically prohibited from charging high tuition and must get by on generally meager local government support.
The lesson for liberals is that there is a useful role for for-profit colleges in America’s vocational training system. The lesson for conservatives is that it’s no longer defensible to argue that a gainful employment rule—at least one based on the kind of data the Monthly uses for our rankings—would be unfair to for-profit institutions. Indeed, it is hard to come up with a simpler, lower-cost way to help more of the working-class Americans that both parties agree have been screwed in today’s economy than shutting down the worst-performing certificate-granting schools—regardless of whether they are for-profit, nonprofit, or public.