• April 25, 2014

Education Dept. Seeks Members for Panel on 'Gainful Employment' Rules

The U.S. Department of Education announced on Wednesday that it would renew its flagging efforts to devise stricter standards for career-focused higher-education programs.

The department's call for a negotiated rule-making committee to debate new "gainful employment" regulations this fall is only the agency's latest effort to clamp down on vocational programs, which can advertise big employment rewards but end up saddling student with unsupportable debt.

The announcement of the formation of the rule-making committee, scheduled for publication in Wednesday's Federal Register, flies in the face of a group of lawmakers who prodded Education Secretary Arne Duncan to drop the regulatory efforts in April.

A federal judge previously blocked aspects of the proposed 2011 rule, which would have pulled federal student aid from vocational programs whose graduates had high debt-to-income ratios and slow loan repayments. An Education Department appeal of the judge's ruling was denied in March, and the department declined further appeals.

The new round of rule making has drawn criticism already from the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, which represents many career-oriented for-profit higher-education companies. Steve Gunderson, the association's president and chief executive, said in a written statement that the department should delay taking up gainful-employment regulations again until Congress reauthorizes the Higher Education Act, which is up for renewal this year but probably will be punted to 2014.

"The department's decision to announce this as their first solitary rule-making initiative," Mr. Gunderson said, "creates all the fears of a repeated, faulty, and confrontational process when we should all be working together to provide the career education that leads to real jobs, with real incomes."

The department wrote in the Federal Register notice that it was seeking "key stakeholders" on the issue, including students, consumer-advocacy groups, and university leaders, to serve on the rule-making committee. The negotiation sessions are scheduled to begin here in September.

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