What Duncan Wishes He’d Done Differently — and What’s Next for the Education Dept.

October 19, 2015

If the departing secretary of education, Arne Duncan, has any regrets about his supervision of higher education, it’s not cracking down on "bad actors" in the for-profit-college sector sooner.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Mr. Duncan, who has served as secretary since the start of the Obama administration and who announced this month that he planned to step down in December, twice said he wished he’d issued the "gainful employment" rule earlier than in 2009.

The rule, which took effect in July after years of delays and lawsuits, cuts off federal aid to programs whose graduates struggle to repay their student-loan debts.

"I wish we’d done that earlier," he said, in response to a question about his legacy.

Later, when talking about his failures as secretary, he mentioned gainful employment first.

"Getting to gainful earlier would have been the right thing to do," he said.

Asked about those remarks after the event, the under secretary of education, Ted Mitchell, said earlier action on the rule would have compelled colleges in the for-profit sector to improve their programs — or close poorly performing ones — sooner than they ultimately did. "It would have moved up the timeline," he explained.

'We all learned something from Corinthian.'
With a little over a year remaining in President Obama’s second term, the administration is setting its sights on accreditation, with plans to issue a package of proposed reforms this month, officials said. Among the options being considered are executive action, new rules, and recommendations for Congress.

"We all learned something from Corinthian," the for-profit-college company that imploded over the last year, Mr. Duncan said.

Mr. Mitchell added that it was "really indicative that Corinthian was still accredited the day they called us" to announce that the company was bankrupt.

"It’s clear that accreditors need to be more focused on outcomes," he said.

Another lesson from Corinthian’s collapse: The Education Department needs "to communicate more directly" with states and accreditors, and with other federal agencies as well, Mr. Mitchell said. He said a new interagency task force on for-profit colleges is "a step toward sharing information early enough."

Kelly Field is a senior reporter covering federal higher-education policy. Contact her at Or follow her on Twitter @kfieldCHE.