The True Significance of ‘Gainful Employment’ — from by Doug Lederman


Largely lost in the instant analyses, pro and con, though, was the long-term significance of the department’s actions. The “gainful employment” rules, as they have come to be known, represent a powerful and potentially game-changing shift in how the federal government looks at higher education. The agency has written into federal policy, for the first time, a direct (if crude) attempt to measure the value of an academic program, by linking a measure of student expenditure (student loan debt burden) with an outcome measure (graduates’ average income).

This current approach applies only to non-liberal-arts programs at for-profit colleges and to vocational non-degree programs at public and private nonprofit colleges — for the moment. But now that the federal government has such a tool, many observers agree, it’s hard to imagine that it won’t seek to apply it more broadly — if not this administration or Congress, then a future one.