Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives urged the Education Department on Thursday to abandon its proposed "gainful employment" rule, warning that the proposal would limit educational access, destroy jobs, and undermine the economic recovery.
"At its heart, this issue is about student choice," said Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, borrowing a line from the 2008 fight over student lending. "We realize there are some bad actors that should be rooted out. But we should not deny students the opportunity to attend the college of their choice."
The comments came during a hearing of the House education committee on the proposed rule, which would cut off federal student aid to programs whose graduates carry high debt-to-income ratios and have low loan-repayment rates.
Democrats were divided over the proposal. Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the committee, offered a more vigorous defense of the rule than he has in the past, saying it "has become apparent that a handful of bad programs are not only failing their students, but they're also wasting taxpayer dollars."
But Rep. Donald Payne, Democrat of New Jersey, said he was concerned the rule would "limit access to a wide range of private programs, not only the bad ones."
Rep. Robert Andrews, another New Jersey Democrat, suggested that colleges be judged based on their graduation and job-placement rates rather than their student-debt levels and repayment rates, an idea he has floated before.
The hearing, which came roughly a month after the House adopted an amendment to a spending bill that would bar the Education Department from enforcing the proposed rule, offered few surprises. Democrats who criticized the rule have opposed it in the past, and Republicans repeated arguments that they, and lobbyists for for-profit colleges, have made many times before.
Still, the hearing provided a counterweight to the overwhelmingly negative tone of the continuing Senate hearings on for-profit education. Last week, Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of that chamber's education committee, held a hearing where he called one for-profit college "a scam, an absolute scam."
During the hearing, lawmakers heard testimony from a former student and an employer who praised for-profit colleges for their flexibility, and from the chief operating officer at the for-profit Globe University/Minnesota School of Business, who asked Congress to block the rule. The only skeptic among those who testified was Arnold Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, who voiced concerns that for-profit recruiters were taking advantage of low-income students.