Gainful Employment – Frequently Asked Questions

The Obama Administration has worked to protect students and taxpayers, through gainful employment regulations (see below) to stop the flow of federal funds to poor-performing career college programs; strengthening state authorization requirements; defining the credit hour; safeguarding students from bad actor institutions and holding financially risky institutions accountable under the newly published borrower defense rule; and increasing rigor in accreditation processes.


As part of the Obama Administration’s efforts to help students make more informed decisions about where to enroll for postsecondary education and to protect students from career training programs with poor outcomes, the Department released earnings data for career college programs.  The data represents the mean and median earnings of graduates of career college programs, reported by the Social Security Administration under the gainful employment regulations.  Roughly 3,700 institutions nationwide offer career training programs subject to the regulations.

The data shows that graduates of career training programs at public institutions generally fare better than those of comparable programs at for-profit colleges.  Highlights include:

  • overall, mean earnings of graduates from public undergraduate certificate programs are nearly $9,000 higher than mean earnings of graduates of for-profit undergraduate certificate programs;
  • graduates of certificate programs at public institutions are more likely to have attended programs that provide training for higher earning fields — such as nursing — than graduates of certificate programs at for-profit colleges; and
  • nearly a third (32%) of for-profit certificate students graduated from programs where the typical graduate earned less than what a full-time minimum wage worker earns in a year ($14,500), compared with only 14% in the public sector.


This data will be used to calculate debt-to-earnings rates that will determine whether a career college program is serving students well or leaving them with poor employment prospects and unaffordable debt.

Consistently low-performing programs that fail to improve their quality will be barred from participating in federal student aid programs.  Starting in January 2017, institutions must disclose to current and prospective students program earnings and other information, such as costs and graduation rates, as well as whether their programs are failing to meet the gainful employment standards.

Gainful Employment Information

Generally, in order to be eligible for funding under the Higher Education Act Title IV student assistance programs, an educational program must lead to a degree at a non-profit or public school or it must prepare students for “gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” With very few exceptions, all educational programs offered at for-profit institutions must lead to gainful employment (GE) in a recognized occupation.

Under 34 CFR 668.404(c) of the GE regulations, the Social Security Administration (SSA) calculates and returns to the Department the mean and median annual earnings of a cohort of students who completed the GE program during a specified cohort period.

At least 10 completers from a program must be matched for SSA to return mean and median earnings information. In calculating a GE program’s Debt to Earnings rates, the Department uses the higher of the SSA-reported mean or median earnings. SSA does not provide the Department individual earnings data or the identity of any students.

Earnings data from the 2014 calendar year is available for informational purposes only. Information on the earnings data spreadsheet includes OPEID and institution name, program identifiers (Classification of Instructional Program (CIP) code, credential level, and CIP code program name), the number of completers matched with earnings data by SSA, along with both the median and mean SSA earnings for the GE program.

You can also access the 2011 Gainful Employment Informational Rate data. These data were prepared to provide institutions and the Department with preliminary information about the performance of institutions’ gainful employment programs based on the 2011 Gainful Employment regulations, which have since been vacated. The Department will provide final GE Debt-to-Earnings Rates, based on the calculations in the 2014 regulations, in January 2017. Access the archived 2011 Gainful Employment Informational Rate Downloadable Spreadsheet.

Information About the Gainful Employment Downloadable Spreadsheet

The 2011 Gainful Employment Downloadable Spreadsheet provides the public with information about educational programs that prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation (GE Program). Under the regulations that go into effect on July 1, 2012, the US Department of Education calculates metrics for GE Programs each year. These metrics include a Repayment Rate, two Debt-to-Earnings Ratios, and three student loan medians.

The 2011 GE Informational Rate information included on the downloadable spreadsheet was produced for the purpose of providing institutions with preliminary information they can use to assess their GE Programs in preparation for the official gainful employment metrics that will first be calculated in 2013. These FY 2011 GE Informational Rates are for informational purposes only and, as such, do not invoke any regulatory requirements, sanctions, or other adverse action. These informational rates were prepared in advance of the years in which programs that fail the debt measures will be required to provide debt warnings and may lose eligibility after failing three out of four consecutive years.

The 2011 GE Informational Rates were not calculated for a GE Program if the program had 30 or fewer former students in the relevant two-year period. Beginning next year, official gainful employment debt measures will include small programs using a four-year period if that four-year period results in more than 30 former students for the GE Program.

After publishing the informational rates, the Department determined that the posted “Median Title IV Loans” amount reflected student debt information from the most recent loan award year, but did not include debt information from previous years. On October 25, 2012, the Department posted an updated spreadsheet. Column V reflects the median loan debt over the course of enrollment in a program. Column W reflects the one-year median loan debt. The Median Private Loans, Median Institutional Loans, and Median Title IV Loans were calculated for disclosure purposes and are NOT the medians that were used in the Repayment Rate or Debt-to-Earnings Ratio calculations.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: The 2011 Gainful Employment Informational Rates were prepared to provide institutions with preliminary data about the performance of their GE Programs. The calculation of the 2011 Gainful Employment Informational Rates did not include a process for institutions to receive draft debt measures and to submit challenges, as the institutions will for official rate calculations. For these reasons, the 2011 Informational Rates are not intended to form a basis for making any general or specific assumptions or determinations about specific GE Programs, or in making projections about future years’ rates.


These Frequently Asked Questions provide information and operational guidance on the requirements of the new gainful employment regulations. Institutions must review the final regulations as published in the Federal Register on October 29, 2010, to ensure that they are in compliance with all of the GE Program requirements.

The listing of Frequently Asked Questions will be updated periodically and include the date of the update. New and/or updated questions and answers will be marked NEW and appear in red font. If you have questions that have not been addressed, please submit them to the GE Questions mailbox at and include the name of the institution.


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