PULLMAN, Wash. – The “gainful employment” rules released by the Obama administration June 2 highlight the need for prospective college students to research their educational options, said David Cillay, executive director of Washington State University’s online degree program.
The rules (which WSU meets) require that, to qualify for federal aid, most for-profit programs and certificate programs at nonprofit and public institutions prepare students for gainful employment. At least one of three criteria must be met: At least 35 percent of former students are repaying loans, that loan payment is 30 percent or less of discretionary income, and the annual payment of a typical graduate does not exceed 12 percent of total earnings.
“These new regulations will help ensure that students at these schools are getting what they pay for: solid preparation for a good job,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a news release.
While the rules offer some protection, prospective students still need to be informed consumers, Cillay said.
“Choosing a college or university is a major decision,” he said. “The long-term consequences can be life-changing.”
Many prospective students are considering online options, Cillay said. For those students, he offered a 10-point checklist:
1. Reputation.  Will your diploma impress employers? If you don’t know, ask your friends and family what they think. Then do an Internet search and see what students say.
2. Quality of instruction. Look up a few faculty members online and examine their resumes. Do they work for the college or are they teaching in their spare time? Do they have a role in designing the courses? If so, they’re more likely to take a personal interest in the quality.
3. Cost per credit and number of credits needed. That information should be readily available online. If it’s not clearly stated, proceed carefully.
4. Social events. Studying online can be lonely. If a college offers social gatherings, it shows it is dedicated to providing social as well as academic support.
5. Availability of materials. Is there free library access, for example?
6. Support services. Tech support? Career counselors? Academic advisors?
7. Is there a student government? An alumni association? Both show that the college cares about more than finances.
8. Bricks and mortar campus. There are excellent online colleges that don’t have campuses. But a real campus creates a sense of belonging – and helps impress employers. Sports teams also can bring an esprit de corps that’s useful in networking.
9. Go online and search for the college’s name. Scroll past the promotional materials and look for an unfiltered view from other students and graduates.
10. Call and ask to talk with someone. See if you get a sales pitch or someone genuinely interested in your future.