Gainfully Employed? Assessing the Employment and Earnings of For-Profit College Students Using Administrative Data

Source: Stephanie Riegg Cellini & Nicholas Turner, NBER Working Paper No. 22287, Issued in May 2016


We draw on population-level administrative data from the U.S. Department of Education and the Internal Revenue Service to quantify the impact of for-profit college attendance on the employment and earnings of over 1.4 million students. We characterize both the within-student earnings effects and joint distributions of earnings effects and increases in student debt. Our descriptive analysis of degree-seeking students suggests that on average associate’s and bachelor’s degree students experience a decline in earnings after attendance, relative to their own earnings in years prior to attendance. Master’s degree students and students who complete their degrees appear to experience better outcomes, with positive earnings effects. Our difference-in-difference analysis of certificate students suggests that despite the much higher costs of attendance, earnings effects are smaller in the for-profit sector relative to the effects for comparable students in public community colleges—a result that holds for all but one of the top ten fields of study. In absolute terms, we find no evidence of improved earnings post-enrollment for students in any of the top ten for-profit fields and we can rule out that average effects are driven by a few low-performing institutions.