AuthorGlastris, Paul

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 That didn't happen, because the Trump administration eventually repealed the regulation, claiming that it unfairly targeted for-profit schools.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. The rankings begin on page 54.

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...

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