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New Third Way poll shows voters want accountability for job education programs

Most students head to college hoping they’ll graduate and land a job that pays more than if they had gone straight to work after high school. Unfortunately, more than 1,700 career education programs allow their graduates to earn less than the average income of a worker with a high school diploma.

The Higher Education Act (HEA) is supposed to protect students from these underperforming programs and prevent taxpayer dollars from flowing into these programs in the form of federal financial aid. The HEA requires that all for-profit college and university programs and programs of one year or less in public and nonprofit schools must “prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” Earlier this year, the US Department of Education (ED) began working on regulations defining paid employment (GE).

GE’s strict rules were developed more than a decade ago. The most recent rule put in place under the Obama administration in 2014 was reversed by the Trump administration in 2019. Today, ED is working to put a new rule in place. According to the most recent draft text, this rule will ensure that graduates of career education programs earn enough to repay their loans and that graduates earn more than the average worker with a high school diploma.

It’s not uncommon for some regulations to become a bit of political football. GE is just one such regulation. Under the Obama and Biden administrations, there was, and still is, an urgency to craft regulations that protect students and taxpayers from institutions that leave them worse off than if they had never enrolled in the university. Under the Trump administration, massive efforts have been made to deregulate and weaken the role of DE in its ability to hold institutions accountable for poor outcomes.

Ultimately, this back and forth on GE rules may be wrong, and most Americans think strong GE rules are important. New polling data from center-left think tank Third Way shows that regulations holding colleges accountable if they run underperforming programs are popular with voters and higher education leaders.

What is in the current draft of the new GE rule?

The details of the final rule are still unknown. The most recent draft settlement presented by ED during negotiations earlier this year included two tests that a program would have to pass to continue receiving federal financial aid: 1) A student debt-to-income ratio to ensure that the graduates of the programs are able to pay their debt; and 2) A measure of wages that ensures graduates earn more than a high school graduate in their state.

These criteria work together to prevent schools from raking in federal financial aid dollars and failing to provide students with an education that leads to increased revenue. If too many graduates of these programs end up paying too much income for loan repayments and/or earning as much or less than the average high school graduate, the program will fail. Failing programs will see federal financial assistance cut. ED plans to publish its draft GE rule in April 2023.

What does Third Way’s query data show?

Third Way worked with polling firm Global Strategy Group to ask 1,000 likely voters and 200 college and university leaders what they thought of the proposed GE regulations. The results show strong support for GE among likely voters and college leaders.

The Third Way poll found more than three-quarters of likely voters and college leaders support the broad brushstrokes of a strong GE rule. The poll also showed that voters are more likely to support the rule once they receive a more detailed explanation of how it works.

Support for a debt threshold rose to 73%, a jump of 11 points, after voters received a more detailed explanation of the rule. Ensuring that graduates of career preparation programs earn more than the average high school graduate was also popular. Third Way found that 70% of likely voters and 73% of university leaders favored a minimum income threshold. Support from likely voters jumped from 64% to 70% once they heard a longer, more detailed explanation of the rule.

Support for a strong GE rule remained high after voters were asked about their other higher education policy priorities. Sixty percent of respondents said it was important to ensure higher education programs help graduates get good jobs and earn a decent income, compared to 51% who said free college was a priority.

Federal regulations tend to be complex and are rarely politically motivating to voters, requiring presidential administrations to represent the interests of voters and government when writing rules. These new polling data clearly show that, when properly explained, regulations holding career preparation programs accountable for their results are what institutions and voters want.

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