New federal data show which college programs result in highest debt, lowest earnings

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education released data on first-year earnings for thousands of different college programs. The data are both limited and flawed in some ways, but they are also some of the most accurate outcomes information currently available about different academic programs and majors.

Among the limitations: many programs are missing from the data set because the department chose to withhold information on those with small enrollments to safeguard students' privacy in those programs. The debt information also only illustrates federal student loan debt taken on by students themselves, not private debt and not any loans taken on by parents.

The debt and earnings information was also taken from different student samples -- debt information collected from those who graduated in 2016 and 2017 and earnings from those who completed in 2015 and 2016.

Finally, the earnings data are only for the first year after graduation. For graduates in many fields, the first year in the workforce is not entirely indicative of lifetime earnings.

Yet the new information is the best that is currently available about the relative financial value of many degrees. And programs where the median debt is significantly greater than median earnings are not hard to find.

Findings by Sector and Degree Level

A similar share of programs offered by for-profit and nonprofit institutions that were included in the data resulted in median debt greater than median first-year earnings, around 25 percent of all programs for both sectors.

At for-profits, over half of bachelor’s programs resulted in higher debt than earnings. For bachelor's degrees at nonprofit institutions, that number was only 17 percent, but rose to 71 percent for doctoral degrees.

Public institutions fared relatively well under this metric. The data show that 15 percent of associate degree programs, 9 percent of bachelor's degrees and 13 percent of master's degrees resulted in higher debt than earnings.

Professional programs, such as medical or law degrees, appear to have relatively high debt burdens. Eighty-two percent of those degrees resulted in debt greater than earnings.

However, because of the common extended pathways to earnings in those fields (such as medical residencies), that may not be cause for concern for all programs.

“Oftentimes, the heaviest debt produces the highest earnings,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, referring to medical and dentistry programs.

Perhaps more troubling among the findings about graduate degrees, about 27 percent of master’s degree programs resulted in higher debt than earnings. Some graduates of master's degree programs continue their studies in doctoral programs, delaying their earnings. But other master's degrees are terminal credentials.

Ben Miller, vice president of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, said the data should make some graduate schools take a long look in the mirror.

“There are a lot of programs at the graduate level where you have to wonder how a school could in good conscience hand out the debt they’re handing out to people,” he said, pointing to a master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern California that he said was “immorally priced.” The program's debt levels drew criticism when the feds released those data earlier this year. Median earnings for the USC master's in social work were about $50,000, but median debt reached over $115,000.

Michael Itzkowitz, a senior fellow of higher education at the think tank Third Way, said certificate programs showed some of the most troubling earnings results. “The average high school graduate makes around $28,000 a year,” he said. “Most certificate programs show students earning less than that.”

Findings by Institution and Field of Study

Colleges that offered several of the bachelor’s programs where debt exceeds earnings by the greatest magnitude included campuses of the now-defunct Everest College, along with Remington College and Stevens-Henager College. Remington and Stevens-Henager did not respond to requests for comment.

Among public university bachelor's programs, the communications bachelor's degree at Grambling State University and the social work bachelor's at Mississippi Valley State University, both historically black colleges, took worst honors, with debt outweighing earnings by over $20,000 in both programs. Neither university responded to a request for comment.

On the opposite end of the spectrum -- public and nonprofit bachelor’s programs where earnings exceeded debt by the greatest magnitude -- the list contains many computer science and engineering programs at highly selective institutions, such as Brown University, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pennsylvania.

However, many nursing or health programs at smaller public or less selective nonprofit private institutions also rise to the top of that category. The bachelor’s program in nursing at Sonoma State University, for example, features a median debt of $12,500 and $110,300 in earnings.

“Sonoma State University provides an affordable, high-quality education that successfully prepares nurses to enter the workforce as a new graduate,” Mary Ellen Wilkosz, department chair of the university's nursing school, said via email.

Other health-related programs at the University of Louisiana, Monroe; the City University of New York City College; two other California State University campuses; and Creighton University also score highly.

Robert Kelchen, professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, dived into some of the data in a blog post.

“Fields like nursing, a lot [of] the health science fields, and also teaching, are fields where full-time employment rates are good but you also jump in at a relatively high salary relative to what you get later in life,” he said in an interview.

Kelchen found that at the bachelor’s level, degrees in psychology, fine arts, drama and English resulted in some of the lowest initial earnings.

“These are fields where people tend to do better later on in life,” he said. “Starting out, salaries aren’t that great.”

Also among the lowest fields for first-year earnings was biology, which Carnevale said is supported by other data.

“Biology is the lowest-earning STEM degree and it’s the most female, which is no coincidence,” he said. “Biology is overloaded with students who don’t get anything beyond their bachelor's.”

At the associate level, Kelchen's analysis found that the lowest-earning fields included criminal justice, health administration and teacher education.

At the graduate level, educational administration broke the top five in earnings, mostly, Kelchen said, because school superintendents tend to do quite well. Lowest-earning graduate fields included music, student counseling and social work.

In addition to helping a prospective student choose a field of study, the data could in theory help a student with an already chosen field of study pick between particular programs. For example, if you’d like to get your bachelor's in fine and studio arts, the best university (by one metric) might by California Polytechnic State University, where the median debt is $15,000 and median earnings are $41,000. Earnings exceed debt in the program by the highest magnitude among the data set's bachelor’s-level programs.

If you’d like to study drama, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, had the most favorable difference between debt and earnings.

But both of these colleges are public and could be more difficult and more expensive to attend for out-of-state students. And prospective undergraduate students, if they do choose to slice and dice the numbers, typically give more weight to location and cost, many experts have said.

“Whatever’s right or wrong with the data,” said Carnevale, “it’s here to stay.”

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Lawsuit challenges program that allows international students to work in the U.S. after graduating

More than 100 U.S. colleges signed on to an amicus brief opposing a lawsuit that seeks to end the optional practical training program, which allows international students to work in the U.S. for up to three years after graduating while staying on their student visas.

Colleges say that ending the program would severely harm the ability of U.S. universities to attract international students. Other countries with which the U.S. competes for international students such as Australia and Canada offer poststudy work programs -- the United Kingdom recently announced plans to expand poststudy work rights for international students -- and research has documented a positive relationship between policies that allow students to work on a temporary basis after graduating and international student growth rates.

The lawsuit, brought by the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, a labor union, argues that the Department of Homeland Security exceeded its regulatory authority in creating the OPT program, effectively establishing a large-scale foreign guest worker program without congressional approval.

“Because aliens on OPT are not pursuing a course of study at an academic institution that will report termination of attendance, because there is no statute that authorizes employment on F-1 visas, and because no statute authorizes aliens to remain in student visa status after they have graduated and are no longer attending school, the OPT program is contrary to law and in excess of DHS authority,” the union, known as WashTech, said in a motion for summary judgment filed in September.

In their amicus brief defending the OPT program, the colleges argue that OPT is crucial both to the quality of education international students can get in the U.S. and to the ability of U.S. universities to attract international students. The brief notes that between 2004 and 2016, nearly 1.5 million international students and graduates participated in OPT, more than half in jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

“If WashTech has its way, OPT will cease to exist,” says the amicus brief from 118 colleges, which was filed on Thursday. “And if it ends, so too will the myriad benefits of OPT to international students, American colleges and universities, and the national economy. If OPT is eliminated, international students will have fewer opportunities to continue their education beyond the walls of the classroom -- something that research shows is often required to master complex fields such as those in the STEM area. Likewise, if OPT is ended or reduced, it will be harder for amici to compete for international students, particularly at a time when global competition is fierce and international students are already questioning whether they are welcome in the United States in light of recent changes in immigration policy and enforcement.”

"If students aren’t able to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and continue that learning in very high-powered work environments where the skills they’ve learned are used, it reduces the attractiveness of American universities -- and other countries are eager to fill that gap," said Ishan Bhabha, a co-author of the colleges' brief and a partner with the law firm Jenner and Block.

The lawsuit against OPT has a long history. WashTech initially filed suit in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia in 2014; the lawsuit led to a judge throwing out a 2008 rule that extended OPT for certain international students on the grounds that it had been issued without proper public notice-and-comment procedures. The judge stayed her ruling by six months to give the government time to properly introduce new regulations, which it did in 2016.

The 2016 rule further extended the duration of OPT for certain students, so that students who study STEM fields can stay on OPT for up to three years after graduating. Students who study non-STEM fields continue to be eligible for just one year of postcompletion OPT, which has been the case since 1992.

The first lawsuit was ultimately dismissed. But WashTech filed suit again, and a judge ruled in July that it could challenge the entire postcompletion OPT program, not just the 2016 extension for STEM students.

Heather Stewart, counsel and director of immigration policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said the authority of DHS to issue work authorization for postcompletion OPT has long rested with DHS and its predecessor agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

“For over 50 years, some version of optional practical training has been available,” Stewart said. “Congress has had many decades if they wished to step into this area, and they have not because it has been such a feature of U.S. higher education that optional practical training would be available.”

"It’s critically important that higher education institutions are able to make the case that optional practical training is an integral part of U.S. higher education," Stewart said of the colleges' amicus brief, which NAFSA helped organize. "The judges need to hear that if OPT is imperiled or reduced or taken away, that would afford international students less of an educational opportunity in this country."

Rachel Banks, the director of public policy for NAFSA, added that the countries with which the U.S. competes for international students all offer poststudy work opportunities. "Most tellingly," she added, the U.K. has moved to restore those opportunities after seeing international enrollments stagnate without them. "It's viewed as an integral component to being attractive to international students to come and study. It's almost expected," Banks said.

John Miano, a lawyer for WashTech and counsel for the Immigration Reform Law Institute, said the amicus brief submitted by the colleges "was a striking admission by American universities that they no longer provide sufficient value to cover tuition. College tuition has been rising out of control for decades, and so they’ve had to turn to foreign students to subsidize it, and now even foreign students are saying it ain’t worth it. Our education doesn’t provide the value for the tuition; now we need the taxpayers to provide immigration benefits as well to us."

Miano said he feels confident OPT could be ended by court order this spring.

"Congress had made clear that student visas are to come to the United States, study and go home," he said. "What we now have is a cabal of the business groups and academia who want to transfer student visas into a mechanism to enter into the United States to enter the workforce, to use student visas as a means to supply foreign labor."

The lawsuit was brought by WashTech against the Department of Homeland Security, but several large business associations -- the National Association of Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce of the U.S. and the Information Technology Industry Council -- successfully petitioned to act as co-defendants in order to defend the legality of the OPT program. The groups argue that if OPT were to end, the companies that make up their membership "would lose thousands of employees, and the pipelines for new talent would be choked off."

The business associations added that their interests in protecting OPT are “not adequately represented by the government, which has already taken steps to reconsider the regulation being challenged in this suit.”

The Department of Justice -- which earlier this fall submitted a motion to dismiss WashTech's lawsuit -- declined to comment for this story.

In its recently released regulatory agenda, a biannual blueprint of planned rules and other proposed executive actions, the Trump administration set an August 2020 target date for issuing a new proposed rule on practical training programs for international students. There is scant detail about what such a new rule will entail; the notice says only that the administration “will amend existing regulations and revise the practical training options available to nonimmigrant students on F and M visas.”

In earlier versions of the regulatory agenda, the Trump administration took a more protectionist tone, suggesting it would propose a new rule to “improve protections of U.S. workers who may be negatively impacted by employment of nonimmigrant students on F and M visas” and “reduce fraud and abuse.”

In an amicus brief supporting WashTech's motion for summary judgment, the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that advocates reducing immigration, argues that OPT “permits the subsidized shouldering aside of hundreds of thousands of U.S. college graduates by foreign nationals each year” (subsidized because students on OPT and their employers do not have to pay taxes toward Medicare and Social Security, unless the student has already been in the U.S. for five years).

In its brief, CIS argues that colleges have limited ability to supervise the training provided to recent graduates who could obtain employment through OPT anywhere in the country. CIS describes the training that students receive on OPT as "nominal at best, merely a fig-leaf to cover OPT’s true nature as a foreign worker program."

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Scholar talks about having to pay for a ‘toxic’ postdoc she had to leave

You leave a postdoctoral fellowship to escape a toxic lab environment. But you’re not safe yet: you need to wait a year to make sure that you don’t have to repay the salary you earned in that lab.

That’s what happened to Aliyah Weinstein, who quit a National Institutes of Health-funded postdoc at an unnamed public research institution 56 weeks ago. She only recently learned she would not have to pay back the $16,000 she earned there over four months to the federal government.

According to the NIH, those who terminate certain awards before one year’s time, for any reason, incur a payback obligation that can be satisfied financially or by health-related work. Postdocs agree to it by way of contractual fine print. But the experience of having to act on the obligation was isolating, Weinstein said. It was unclear for a long time whether her post-postdoc career in science marketing and communication would qualify as repayment.

In the end, it did. But Weinstein wants the repayment to be “common knowledge.”

Postdocs “should be able to make informed decisions about their futures, and that includes knowing how accepting a grant-funded position can impact their options,” she said. “The repayment obligation puts postdocs in a bind for so many reasons.”

In Weinstein’s case, she only learned of the repayment obligation once she was presented with the paperwork to secure her training grant, after she’d already been hired as a postdoc at a public research institution. (She didn’t want to name that institution or her current employer.) That didn’t leave time to consider the implications for her future or to discuss alternative funding options, she said.

After sharing her experience with others, including on social media, Weinstein said she guessed that many postdocs are unaware of the obligation, even if they’ve signed paperwork agreeing to it. Faculty members can help by informing their trainees, she said.

Whether they know it or not, postdoctoral recipients of NIH Research Service Awards who leave their funded positions or otherwise terminate their awards before one year, for any reason, have agreed to pay back the federal government. They may ask to do so in dollars or -- more likely -- by engaging in health-related biomedical or behavioral research, including teaching or administering research.

Postdoctoral trainees and fellows are required to begin their payback activities within two years of terminating their awards. And the government requires annual reports until the debt is paid.

Those with questions about what kind of work counts may contact the NIH’s Payback Service Center. But they can only get their payback activities certified -- and be truly in the clear -- after service is rendered. A letter with a link to the Ruth L. Kirschstein Annual Payback Activities Certification form is mailed to participants around the anniversary date of their award termination.

And so Weinstein waited for more than a year to see whether her post-postdoc work in scientific marketing and communication would count. Thoughts of possible, actual repayment were never far off.

Weinstein tried “finding a job that I enjoy and that would set me up for the career path I want,” she said. Yet in the intervening year, “the possibility of having to repay my salary financially was hanging over my head.”

Tracy Costello, chair of the Board of Directors for the National Postdoctoral Association and a career executive coach at STEMPeers, said she’s coached a number of postdocs who have brought the same issue to her attention.

“The short answer,” she said, “is that I strongly recommended they reach out to their program officer at NIH to discuss the situation.” Costello would never recommend a “wait and hope for the best” method.

NIH officers are aware that “not every mentoring relationship works out and that bright candidates will choose a career option that fits their career goals, and not necessarily in an academic faculty track,” she said. The institutes have amended their career success policy language to reflect those facts, across their funding source, Costello added -- including the repayment obligation attached to training grants.

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State financial support helps Cheyney regain regional accreditor’s backing

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education last week reaffirmed Cheyney University of Pennsylvania's accreditation, largely citing the state government's decision in August to wipe out millions in debt the struggling regional public institution owed to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

Cheyney, a historically black institution to the west of Philadelphia, saw its enrollment tumble by more than half over the last decade before rebounding modestly this fall. State officials have loaned the university tens of millions of dollars in debt to help keep it afloat, and those debts (among concerns about lack of administrative continuity and other issues) got Cheyney crosswise with Middle States, which placed it on probation in 2015 and followed in 2017 with a "show-cause" order, requiring it to provide evidence why its accreditation should not be stripped.

The debt and the risk of the loss of accreditation -- which means the end for most institutions that depend on federal student aid to operate -- threatened the future of the country's oldest historically black institution. Cheyney has been at the center of discussions in recent years about whether the Pennsylvania system's 14 institutions should remain separately accredited or should be merged or otherwise reorganized. The prospect of any restructuring that closed or threatened the state's only black institution has seemed increasingly unlikely.

Last summer, Cheyney raised funds from alumni and donors to close a $4.4 million budget gap and elicited a vow from Governor Tom Wolf that the state would alleviate the university's debt to the state system.

Cheyney's president, Aaron Walton, said at the time that he was "cautiously optimistic" that Middle States would restore its accreditation.

University officials made their case at a closed-door hearing before the accreditation commission last week. In a news release Monday, agency officials said Cheyney was back in compliance with the accreditor's standards regarding planning, resources and institutional improvement, citing Wolf's "written assurance of the elimination of Cheyney University’s debt to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) and the Office of the Chancellor."

The agency said it would require Cheyney to submit reports by next spring showing that the university had resolved its debt obligations to the state university system and by next fall showing that the university had a plan to "assure long-term financial stability."

In a statement signed Monday by Wolf, Walton and the head of the Pennsylvania system, Daniel Greenstein, the officials said the university was undergoing a "major transformation" that was "breathing life back into a university that has overcome many difficult challenges over the last several years."

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