Congress needs to protect students from gainful employment regulation

July 1 is fast approaching. What is the significance of this date? It is the date that the Department of Education's misguided gainful employment regulation takes effect. It is the date that will begin the countdown to hundreds of thousands of students finding themselves without a clear path to attain a higher education. Why would that be, you might ask. That would be because the Department of Education has pushed forward with a regulation that primarily targets private-sector colleges and universities, requiring that their programs produce graduates who, in the first two to four years post-graduation, earn as much as $70,000 in annual compensation, an unreasonable and largely unattainable metric.


This travesty must be remedied before it is too late. Congress must take the opportunity to immediately help hundreds of thousands of Americans seeking life improvement through higher education by rolling back this harmful government overreach, an excessive regulation of private-sector (for-profit) colleges, upon which huge numbers of traditionally underserved students rely for a quality, affordable education.

The Obama administration's gainful employment regulation amounts to little more than a major roadblock to access to higher education. This burdensome rule, ostensibly designed to reduce student debt and protect students from abuses by career colleges, inexplicably judges a program's worth not by the quality of its curriculum, but by the average amount of debt incurred by a student relative to the amount of income earned in the first two to four years after graduation. The administration often claims that it does not want policies like its new college rating system to punish institutions that prepare students for important jobs that often have low entry-level salaries. However, that is exactly what this rule does: It will impact approximately 1,400 programs, abruptly leaving 840,000 students without a way to pursue a degree. Furthermore, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU) estimates that a staggering 7.5 million students could be forced out of their programs over the next 10 years as a result. Understandably, the gainful employment requirement has garnered widespread opposition by minority leaders as well as members of Congress representing underserved communities. Dozens of legislators chastised the rule last year for needlessly limiting options for students from nontraditional backgrounds dependent on the flexibility career colleges allow.

Sadly, the administration's approach has been proven biased and downright malicious. What else but favoritism on the part of the Department of Education can explain why community colleges, which actually have higher default and lower graduation rates than their private-sector counterparts, avoid punishment under the new rule?

Our elected leaders in Washington should focus on expanding access to higher education, not penalizing underserved students. That's why Congress should act quickly to roll back the administration's misguided gainful employment regulation. In so doing, the legislature can help hundreds of thousands of highly motivated men and women stay on track to finish their education and break into the middle class rather than finding themselves suddenly without direction. Republicans would also strike a blow against overzealous federal regulation, living up to one of the party's most cherished principles.

Congress now has an opportunity to overhaul our broken system by reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. The law, which governs federal student aid programs, was last renewed in 2008 and constitutes an ideal venue to enact real reforms. Everyone can agree that something must be done to help our best and brightest from all walks of life avoid debilitating amounts of debt and enrolling in underperforming programs. Whereas the current administration relies on shortsighted, piecemeal and ideologically driven regulations, the best approach is for Congress to holistically address the challenges plaguing higher education in one broad stroke where programs can be streamlined or eliminated outright, and the financial aid system can be modernized and simplified, giving Congress a platform to pursue better performance and lower costs across all of higher education.

Apart from doing the right thing for the next generation, there is a political imperative for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellNegotiators remain far apart on coronavirus deal as deadline looms States begin removing Capitol's Confederate statues on their own Skepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal MORE (R-Ky.) to act. Many of the students harmed by the administration's overreach come from the very underprivileged communities with whom Republicans have historically struggled to make inroads. Research from Charles River Associates shows that 25 to 40 percent of African-American students and 21 to 39 percent of Hispanic students are enrolled in programs that the gainful employment rule will impact. Considering the huge swaths of minority communities these numbers represent, moving to eliminate the gainful employment regulation and keeping affected students on a path toward life improvement will demonstrate that the GOP has the interests of all Americans at heart. McConnell and House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBottom line Cheney battle raises questions about House GOP's future Lott says lobbying firm cut ties to prevent him from taking clients MORE (R-Ohio) should immediately mobilize their caucuses to delay the devastating gainful employment fiat and pursue meaningful reform via the Higher Education Act.

Alford is the cofounder, president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.