Updated Sector Thoughts as Gainful Employment Saga Continues
Viewpoint: The second set of negotiations for “Gainful Employment 2.0” resulted in no
consensus, as expected, but rather a contentious few days between advocates with little
common ground followed by a decision to extend the rule-making sessions into December,
with the Department of Education agreeing to provide data and support for its proposed
student loan default and repayment metrics in the meantime. We believe that most
investors have begun and will continue to ignore the tail risk the rule presents to private
sector schools in light of the significant regulatory risk that is already embedded in the
stocks, the extended duration of the gainful employment negotiations (four years and
counting, with no potential program closures until 2019 or later), the increasing likelihood
of a successful legal or regulatory challenge from the private sector schools that would
block some or all pieces of the final rule, the numerous positive changes already made in
the sector to improve student return on investment and school regulatory profiles, and the
recent strength in fundamentals and associated recovery in the stocks
Where Do Things Stand With Gainful Employment?
The Higher Education Act (the governing document for postsecondary schools that access
the government’s Title IV student loan program) states that for-profit college (both
certificate and degree) programs and nondegree (certificate) programs at nonprofit
colleges must prepare students for “gainful employment.” In 2009, a few key staffers
(who are no longer involved in the process) at the Department of Education (Ed) saw big
enrollment and profit growth and anecdotal evidence of student abuse at for-profit
colleges and decided that something needed to be done. In a bit of an end-around attack,
they reinterpreted the simple phrase “gainful employment” into a set of rules that created
complex student loan debt-to-income and repayment thresholds for for-profit college
students, which, if not met, could result in a loss of access to Title IV loans (which
accounts for about 80% of the sector’s revenue).
In a perfect storm for the sector, the introduction of potentially game-changing regulation
coincided with peak U.S. unemployment (and the end of an increase in college
applications associated with these job losses); the lapping of significant Pell grant and
Title IV loan limit
expansions from 2007 to 2009; the tail-end of a dramatic spike in forprofit
school capacity, programs, and tuitions along with an influx of private equity
dollars into the sector; and the beginning of a national conversation questioning the value
of a college degree as student loan debt surged near $1 trillion.
With the threat of largely unquantifiable legislation and the associated change in the
playing field, the enterprise value for the 15 publicly traded companies in the sector
dropped from $46 billion in the first quarter of 2010 to $8 billion in late 2012 as new
enrollment declined and total enrollment and profitability followed (enrollment is down
roughly 30% from peak levels and operating margins are down from the mid-20s to the
low double digits). Not until early this year did the sector show signs of a recovery, with
starts inflecting toward positive (and turning positive for a third of the schools) on price
reductions and a tailwind from a bit more regulatory clarity, and an investor recognition
that the schools were adapting business models and the 30% of the market capitalization
that lay in net cash was safe. The stocks have outperformed the market by 60% this year.
In the four years since gainful employment rule-making was introduced, Ed negotiated a set of harsh debt-to-income and
repayment draft rules in 2010, introduced a much softer final rule in 2011, released supporting data in 2012 that saw most of
the schools pass the tests with flying colors on surprisingly strong debt-to-income metrics, and then later in 2012 saw a
private sector college lawsuit strike the rule down on a federal judge’s view that Ed’s proposed repayment metric was
Ed went back to the drawing board and began another round of negotiated rule-making in fall 2013. Ed’s most recent
proposal, as in 2010, was a set of harsh debt-to-income and loan repayment standards. A (likely softened) final rule is
expected to be released late in 2014 with the rules going into effect in 2015. At-risk programs could be eliminated in 2019 and
Is There Risk for the Stocks?
Unlike in 2010 and 2011, when education stocks hung on every move from the Department of Education and legislative
opponent Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and 10% moves on policy speculation were a frequent event, over the past year, the
stocks have become immune to policy noise, good or bad. We note that attendance from both the buy- and sell-side at the
latest round of negotiations was a fraction of that seen in previous rounds. In many ways, the stocks have been left for dead
and remain uninvestable in the eyes of many long-only investors who were burned by the sector in past years. In that context,
we remain long-biased on the space, and note that:
1. New enrollment is gradually improving, with a third of the stocks in the space growing starts, a third in the down
single-digit range, and the rest getting “less worse.”
2. Most schools in the space have increased the value proposition of their degrees through brand-building efforts,
stronger retention and graduation, improved job placement rates, price cuts, enrollment restrictions like mandatory
orientation, low-ROI program elimination, and even money-back policies on first classes.
3. Public colleges have increased prices in real terms in excess of 5% annually over the past decade, and the increases
have continued despite declining enrollment, offering for-profit schools a bit of a price umbrella.
4. Most schools in the space have moved out (either partly or entirely) of the lead aggregator channel, which has
sometimes produced low quality student inquiries and at times resulted in high dropout rates (churn).
5. Retention increases at the schools have been largely masked by the graduation “bubble,” a result of the large incoming
classes of students in the 2008 to 2010 period reaching the end of their tenure at the schools, but these retention
gains should eventually allow total enrollment to grow well in excess of new enrollment and produce strong
incremental margins even on moderate top-line growth.
6. “Halo” schools like Grand Canyon University (LOPE $44.15; Outperform), which offers a traditional ground campus
and Division 1 athletic programs, and Capella University (CPLA $64.30; Outperform), one of the highest-quality online
degrees in the country (as recognized by its accreditor), are repairing the sector’s image among both policy-makers
7. Many schools in the space have cut significant cost out of the business, but the magnitude of the cost cuts has varied
widely, leading us to believe there is significant further cost-cutting potential and margin leverage ahead for many
8. The potential range of negative regulatory outcomes has narrowed significantly, with the focus on gainful
employment and 90/10 (a legislative effort to exclude military funding dollars from the 10% of nonfederal money
required by this ratio) resulting in a much more manageable set of outcomes than the wide range of a few years ago
(with proposed marketing spending or even operating margin caps).
9. The sector trades at just over six times EBITDA, a significant discount in a market where inexpensive stocks are
increasingly hard to come by.
But we note that from an operator’s perspective, gainful employment still presents substantial risk—in its most punitive form,
the proposed rules could result in the closure of more than 10% of for-profit programs and likely costly changes even to
passing programs. While we believe most management teams remain in a holding pattern and are not making any operational
changes in the near term, we believe the rulemaking
Link to full report: https://www.rdocs.com/getrdocnologin.asp?p=144937
Timo Connor, CFA
William Blair & Company, L.L.C.