Dressed in the hospital scrubs, chef jackets and mechanic suits of their professions, more than 1,000 students and graduates of for-profit colleges gathered on Capitol Hill Wednesday to tell Congress that federal loans put toward their educations are worthwhile investments.
The students rallied against a pending new rule that would eliminate federal financial aid at career colleges where high proportions of graduates are not making enough money in their new jobs to pay back their school loans.
The colleges, which include institutions like University of Phoenix, offer training for vocational careers and are attractive to many students because of their online classes, flexible hours and, for now, financial aid packages built on federal tax dollars.
The rule that would end federal financial aid at some career schools — the so-called "gainful employment" rule — is opposed by the schools but supported by consumer and education groups. In a news release Friday, Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan said: "While a majority of career colleges play a vital role in training our work force to be globally competitive, some bad actors are saddling students with debt they cannot afford in exchange for degrees and certificates they cannot use."
The rule, slated to begin in November, has been pushed to sometime in 2011 because of resistance from students, the schools and the corporations who are invested in the for-profit education system. The Senate Health Education Labor and Finance Committee will hold its third hearing to discuss the issue Thursday.
At the last hearing, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) reported that enrollment in for-profit colleges increased from 600,000 to 2 million over the last decade, causing federal financial aid to students to grow from $12.8 billion to $26 billion. A government analysis of the eight publicly traded for-profit colleges reported they spent 31 percent of profits on recruitment-billboards, TV commercials and Web ads.
Harris Miller, president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, said Thursday’s hearing won’t include and student success stories, but there were several at Wednesday’s rally.
John Nuss, 23, studying to be an automotive technician at Lincoln Technical Institute in Columbia, Md., said he will finish his degree in six months and has a job lined up upon graduation. Nuss said he went to Lincoln Tech because it fit his learning and lifestyle.
"I did have an option to go to a state college, but it was too expensive and this was closer to home," Nuss said. "They’re also more into the field, whereas in school, they’re into the books."
Kerbe Fuller, 26, splits her time between her job as a medical assistant and classes at Virginia College in Birmingham, Ala., where she earned her first degree in the medical field in one year at Virginia College. She said she will be certified as a nurse at the end of her second year.
"I found my first job within a month of graduation," Fuller said. "Our career counselor was really adamant about getting our resumes out and getting us out on interviews."
Fuller said that 92 percent of the classmates she graduated with in December of 2009 now have jobs.
Both sides of the for-profit college debate agree that job placement is the best way to measure the return on federal loans’ investment. Studies by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools and the Coalition for Education Success report an average of 75 percent of 2009 graduates of for-profit institutions received jobs within six months.
The discussion in the Senate on Thursday will focus on whether a 75 percent job-placement rate is enough to justify the estimated $30.6 billion needed to meet the loan demand at for-profit colleges.