August 23

“BY 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” So President Obama told Congress in his 2009 State of the Union address, when he called on every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training.

Those are laudable aspirations. But it is hard to see how the country can fulfill them, given the administration’s animus toward the for-profit colleges that provide the only realistic educational opportunity for millions of underserved Americans.

The for-profit higher education sector is already reeling from the administration’s aggressive treatment of California-based Corinthian Colleges. Now it is girding itself — “cautiously pessimistic,” said one industry spokesman — for final language on federal regulations that would establish stringent standards for programs that prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation. The Education Department has issued no timetable for the release of the rules, which are said to still be in the works. The department’s earlier proposals — cutting off financial aid to career-oriented programs whose graduates have high student-loan debt relative to their incomes — would, industry officials say, effectively force thousands of programs to close while causing others to limit admissions to students who pose no risk.

There should be no tolerance of programs that are unscrupulous in how they use taxpayer-funded student aid or prepare their students for careers. But the administration’s proposed approach essentially singles out the for-profit sector and applies arbitrary debt-to-earning metrics that many public and private nonprofit institutions would be hard-pressed to meet. While the standards would apply to all career-training programs, the for-profit sector would be most affected since its degree programs would have to be in compliance but degree programs offered by public and private nonprofit institutions would not.

Why not come up with standards that make sense and apply them to all schools that accept federal student loan aid? If there are problems with how schools prepare their students or use public-supported dollars, devise a mechanism that zeroes in on the wrongdoers without jeopardizing programs that responsibly fulfill their obligations.

The for-profit sector can play a useful role in helping meet Mr. Obama’s goal of more higher education for more Americans. Not only do they account for 20 percent of the associate degrees granted in the United States but they also serve poor and working-class students who have little chance of entry into traditional higher education. Consider, for example, that 31 percent of the nation’s African American college graduates, and 28 percent of Hispanic graduates, came from for-profit schools in 2012-13 (the latest year for which data are available). The for-profit sector has shrunk under the weight of attacks of recent years, and over-stressed community colleges cannot fill the gap. If the gainful employment rules are promulgated as has been proposed, opportunities for non-traditional students are sure to become even more limited.