Must All Colleges Show Their Graduates Found Work?

Now that the Education Department has released "Gainful Employment" rules for for-profit schools, some would like to see similar standards for non-profit colleges and universities. With student debt increasing, they say it would be useful for students to know what their job chances are.

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This next story also involves debt. It asks what American students get in return for their student loans. And that leads to a deeper and older question: What is the purpose of an education? For-profit universities face new federal rules requiring them to prove their graduates are getting jobs and earning enough to repay their loans. Now, non-profit and public colleges could face pressure to apply the same rules, and that has dismayed educators who argue that it's hard to put a dollar value on education.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: For-profit career colleges fought tooth and nail against these new rules. But now that they are in place, Brian Moran, acting president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, says he'd like equal treatment.

Mr. BRIAN MORAN (Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities): I guess we look for a little consistency. For those who would think these regulations are beneficial, then why not have them applied to all of higher ed?

ABRAMSON: The Department of Education focused its crackdown on career colleges because their students take out the biggest federal loans. That leaves taxpayers on the hook if students default. But with the average debt of all graduates at nearly $25,000, why not ask the same from all of higher ed?

Mr. MARK KANTROWITZ (Publisher, FinAid.org): Most students think of college as the pathway to a good job.

ABRAMSON: Mark Kantrowitz publishes FinAid.org. He says sure, students go to school for lots of reasons - to broaden their horizons, to become good citizens. But most, he says, do expect a return on their investment. Kantrowitz says graduates of the best schools do earn enough to repay their loans.

Mr. KANTROWITZ: A college that has a 70 or 80 percent loan repayment rate, which is typical of the Ivy League institutions, is going to show up as a much better institution than a college that has a 25 or 35 percent loan repayment rate.

ABRAMSON: But don't expect to see your local college displaying these numbers anytime soon on the front of the catalog. Few do. And Sandy Bowne(ph), of George Washington University, says there's a good reason. Success can't easily be measured with a single number.

Ms. SANDY BOWNE (George Washington University): If you're a women's college, your graduates are going to make less than if you're a co-ed institution. If you are a liberal arts institution, you may be educating a lot of people who are going off to graduate school and will take a long time to earn money.

ABRAMSON: Schools can't completely control who attends and how they do when they leave, Bowne says. And that's exactly what career colleges have argued. We attract lots of low-income students looking for a second chance. Don't penalize us for that, they say.

Terry Hartle, of the American Council on Education, says that's the problem with the idea of coming up with a single set of numbers for such a diverse industry.

Mr. TERRY HARTLE (American Council on Education): We have about 6,000 institutions of post-secondary education in the country. They run from three-month vocational programs to enormous research universities. And that heterogeneity that is such a key characteristic of American higher education, is the very thing that makes it hard to come up with a single indicator.

ABRAMSON: But Anthony Carnevale, who studies education in the workforce at Georgetown University, says we don't need to settle this debate. He says parents and students should be able to make up their own minds.

Mr. ANTHONY CARNEVALE (Georgetown University): It's not so much that you suppose people will always choose the degree that gets them the most money. It's that they have a right to know what they're getting into.

ABRAMSON: Right now, savvy parents can track down some numbers on their own, like the average debt load at certain schools. But few traditional schools display this kind of nuts-and-bolts information right there in the catalog, the way career colleges have to. Carnevale says no school, and no program, should be ignoring the big question: Can your students get a job?

Mr. CARNEVALE: So if higher education in America is unable to make people employable, it's very unlikely that it'll complete its other missions.

ABRAMSON: Federal law makes it possible for the Education Department to require that career schools monitor their placement rates. But when it comes to traditional schools, it's up to parents or students to decide whether they demand that information.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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