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Bad Returns: How Idaho college degrees fare on debt-earnings tests

By Adam Kissel & Anna K. Miller

The U.S. Department of Education’s gainful-employment rule targeted degree programs in which graduates had high debt relative to income — but only at for-profit colleges, ignoring the many public and nonprofit college programs with similarly bad results. The rule is poised to return. This study uses new data to identify dozens of troubled programs at public colleges and universities in Idaho. By the Department of Education’s gainful-employment standards, this report identifies 19 failing and 42 probationary programs, compared with 102 that pass.

Furthermore, the gainful-employment rule assesses programs only on the basis of debt payments rather than overall student loan debt. A more complete debt-to-income measure shows that nine of those 102 “passing” programs produce graduates with concerning levels of debt.

Together, the 70 troubled programs graduate nearly 3,000 students per year. Students and parents should beware of these bad bets; colleges should end or improve these programs, and lawmakers should hold their institutions accountable.

In contrast, associate degree programs in Idaho perform extremely well by these measures, with graduates of 26 out of 28 assessed programs having readily affordable debt in light of their income, if they have any debt at all. There is no public policy reason to “increase affordability” by further subsidizing this level of college or making it “free.”

Overall, Idaho’s public institutions rank 37th among the 50 states.

This report also ranks the best 50 programs by these financial measures, recognizing that while income is not necessarily the primary reason to go to college, public institutions must be assessed for the financial outcomes of their graduates and held to account when their graduates do not earn enough to repay their student loans.

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