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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Beware of 'low-value' colleges, but it's hard to say which programs don't pay

Photo: JESHOOTS/Pexels

Will a degree in social work from Middling State U lead to higher earnings? What's the payoff for enrolling in fashion design at Fugly College of the Arts or archaeology at St. Exorbitant?

The Biden administration's plan to list "low-financial-value colleges" is strongly opposed by the higher education lobby, reports Katherine Knott on Inside Higher Ed.

It's not possible to evaluate postsecondary programs' "qualitative and quantitative" value, argues the American Council on Education. There are too many factors to consider.

Broadly, organizations representing nonprofit colleges and universities urged the department to rethink its plans, while for-profit colleges advocated for metrics that would cover all sectors of higher education. Meanwhile, think tanks and education researchers offered suggestions on how exactly the department should determine which programs provide a low financial value to students and taxpayers — debt-to-earnings ratios, program completion rates and earnings above the average high school graduate’s salary were popular recommendations.

In public comments, some asked the department to exclude “social good programs,” such as those that prepare teachers or social workers, because earnings tend to be low, reports Knott.

The “low-financial-value” label could be linked to financial aid, wrote Barbara Mistick, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. The federal government could "take a role in directing students on where and what to study.”

Some hope the list will help students avoid taking on debt they can't repay, writes Matthew Arrojas on BestColleges.

Third Way, the Institute for Higher Education Policy and New America "urged the department to use a debt-to-earnings ratio to determine low financial value," such as the gainful employment metric for for-profit and credential programs.

Programs can fail to show gainful employment if graduates' median earnings are less than the median for working adults 25 to 34 with only a high school or GED diploma. It's a low bar.

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