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Outside editorial: Congress needs to address career colleges' toxic choices

Posted: March 29, 2011 - 9:46pm

The following editorial first appeared in the Seattle Times:

For-profit colleges have successfully marketed a compelling story in which they star front and center as benevolent purveyors of the American dream through education and gainful employment.

The reality is the complete opposite. Former students testified before a U.S. Senate oversight committee this month about exorbitant tuition costs and unfulfilled promises of good jobs. One student spoke of completing a program in video-game design and ending up in the video games section of a Toys R Us.

Solutions include tougher gainful-employment rules crafted by the federal Department of Education. The long-awaited standards would ensure career and vocational programs adequately prepare students for employment.

A key part of the rules requires colleges to consider whether students will actually earn enough to repay their loans. For-profit career colleges enroll about 10 percent of all students but account for 25 percent of federal student aid and 48 percent of all federal student loan defaults. Huge profits are made on federal aid; student success is secondary.

The new rules have run into trouble. The House passed a bill preventing the Education Department from enforcing the rules. Similar legislation is in the Senate.

Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell must be part of the effort blocking the legislation, an unabashed end run around accountability measures.

Federal rules already require career education programs receiving federal student aid to prepare students for “gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” But enforcement was based on an honor system, in which institutions checked a box.

The new rules add clarity and structure, but they aren’t as tough as career colleges are proclaiming. They would deem a career program ineligible for federal student aid only if less than 35 percent of students are repaying their loans. Plus, students would have to have a debt burden of at least 12 percent of their total income. Programs falling on the wrong side of these rules deserve to be dinged.

For-profit institutions have dispatched scores of lobbyists to Congress to gin up sympathy for their argument that tougher rules decrease educational choices. No, just the toxic ones.

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