‘Gainful Employment’ Battle Rages On

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Amid of flurry of legal actions and ad campaigns seeking elimination or softening/toughening and quick enforcement of the Department of Education’s proposed “gainful employment” rule, advocates on both sides seem to be showing their impatience over the government process.

A coalition of 35 organizations representing student, civil rights and consumer interests this week submitted a letter to President Barack Obama urging the “Department of Education’s prompt adoption of a strong and enforceable ‘gainful employment’ rule.”

The gainful employment rule, which Education Department officials have said will be modified when the   second and final version is released in “the early part of 2011,” would link a career education program’s eligibility for federal student financial aid to its graduates’ salaries and their ability to pay off their student loans.  The department has not given details of the revised rules and when they will be released.

The letter is an initiative of the Institute for College Access & Success, which assembled the 35-member coalition as a means of balancing a debate that, based on advertising exposure, the for-profit sector appears to be winning.

“You look at the millions of dollars that the for-profit [college] industry has been spending on advertising and lobbying,” said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access & Success, a college affordability nonprofit that has advocated for government regulation of career colleges. “We don’t have millions of dollars to spend on lobbyists and full page color ads in all the papers, but we are very concerned about protecting the investments of both students and taxpayers in higher education.

“As more and more folks have become aware of the problem for students in career education and the need for greater regulation you see a growth in the level of concern and the types of groups that are speaking out, ” she said.

Among the letter's signees are the NAACP, the California Coalition for Civil Rights, Campus Progress, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, National Consumers League and the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

The coalition takes an opposite view from other groups, including many in the for-profit community, that  have argued  the new rule will limit college access for displaced workers and minority and low-income Americans.

At the time the letter was sent to Obama, the Coalition for Educational Success, which represents for-profit colleges, asked a federal court to order the Department of Education to release communications between the department and for-profit college critics who may have influenced the writing of the gainful employment rule.

There are television ads that take either side of the debate, as the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress put out a national ad last week urging strict regulation into the industry. Previously, the career college sector dominated ad space on the issue, with spots such as this from the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities.

Further evidence of the pushback from those advocating for strict regulation can be found in a petition on Change.org that calls on the Washington Post Company to freeze all admissions to students at the for-profit Kaplan University, which the Post owns, until Kaplan amends its student recruitment policy. The petition has more than 8,500 signatures.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions has scheduled its fourth hearing on for-profit colleges for Feb. 17, according to the committee’s spokesperson Justine Sessions, who had no further specifics on the hearing’s agenda.