Civil rights groups urge college crackdown

A coalition of civil rights organizations is pressing the Obama administration to take a bold approach on looming for-profit college regulations that the industry warns would adversely affect minority students.

In a policy brief issued Wednesday, the groups seek to counter arguments that the Education Department's so-called gainful employment rule would have the unintended consequence of reducing access to schools.

The regulations, expected in the coming days, are meant to crack down on for-profit colleges that saddle students with a mountain of student loan debt without sufficiently preparing them for the job market.

“Stronger oversight is desperately needed to tackle the problems of poor outcomes and high debt within career education programs,” the brief urges.

The regulations have been in the works for years and are championed by congressional Democrats who note that, while only 10 percent of students attend for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix and Corinthian Colleges, they account for almost half the country’s defaults on student loans.

Scheduled to take effect by late 2016, the rule would impose a new set of standards focused on student outcomes that colleges must meet to be eligible for federal loan and grant programs.

Under a draft proposal, the estimated annual loan payments for graduates must not exceed 20 percent of their discretionary earnings. Default rates on loans taken out by former students must not exceed 30 percent.

Colleges would also be required to certify that all gainful employment programs are accredited and have the proper state and federal licenses. And they would be subject to new public disclosures to better inform students about the costs of the programs.

Critics within the industry counter that proposed restrictions unfairly target private institutions, and are likely to backfire.

The Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities has cited research showing the regulations could deny as many as 7.5 million students access to post-secondary education by 2020.

Minority students would be disproportionately affected, the group contends.

The Department of Education originally proposed its gainful employment rule in 2011, but a federal judge tossed it out after a legal challenge.

This time around, groups on both sides of the issue have flocked to the White House in hopes of influencing the final language.

There have been no fewer than 31 meetings at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget this month on the rule, a number that far exceeds the total for virtually any rule in recent memory.

The coalition, which includes the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, is adding to the mix a set of recommendations for a robust rule.

The brief contains an argument that the existing academic landscape is hurting minority students. A strong gainful employment rule would help to ease the pain — not add to it, they assert.

“Currently, even when better and lower cost options are available, African-American and Latino students are disproportionately enrolled in schools where they are both likely to borrow and unlikely to succeed, and there are few incentives for schools to improve poorly performing programs.”