Debate grows over for-profit colleges as their supporters rally on Capitol Hill

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; 4:18 PM

Several hundred students and others connected with for-profit colleges and trade schools rallied Wednesday at the foot of Capitol Hill to protest a federal proposal to tighten regulation of career-education programs.

"My education, my job, my choice" was their message, in response to a proposal that the Obama administration says would help ensure that students find "gainful employment" and are not overloaded with debt.

The industry says the proposal would wipe out many programs that serve low-income and minority students.

Carlethia Washington, 28, a mother of two in Northeast Washington, went to the rally to support the industry. She is studying to become a medical assistant at Everest College at Tysons Corner, which is owned by for-profit Corinthian Colleges.

"When my kids get old enough to decide where to go to school, they should have all the options that I have," Washington said. "They should have a choice. Career college is perfect for that."

The rally, organized by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, showed anew that the administration's proposal has put a rare spotlight on a fast-growing sector of higher education often overshadowed by public and nonprofit colleges.

"Too many for-profit programs are saddling students with huge debt in exchange for degrees and certificates that don't get them the good-paying jobs they need," Education Department spokesman Justin Hamilton said. "We want to protect students from these bad actors and make sure they can use federal student aid to pay for effective programs that will help them get ahead."

The Washington Post Co., through its subsidiary Kaplan, operates for-profit schools with about 112,000 students. The Post Co. also owns more than 8 percent of the stock of Corinthian Colleges, which has about 110,000 students.

On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions plans to examine the for-profit education industry in a hearing chaired by an advocate of the proposal: Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

Under the proposal, made public in July, career-education programs (including non-degree programs in public and nonprofit institutions) would be held accountable for new standards related to student debt loads and loan repayment. Programs that fall short of the standards could lose eligibility for a huge stream of revenue from federal student loans and Pell grants, or they would face certain restrictions.

Key formulas in the regulatory matrix would measure whether graduates of programs have annual loan bills exceeding 20 percent of their discretionary income and whether at least 35 percent of former students with federal loans are paying down the principal.

Federal officials estimate that 5 percent of about 53,000 programs nationwide would be found ineligible. On Friday, officials pushed back to early 2011 their timetable for adopting a final rule. But they said they were holding firm on plans for regulation to take effect in mid-2012.

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