Democrats Aim to Prevent Students From Poor Career Prospects

As the "gainful employment" rule nears the end of public comment, some worry it's not tough enough.

Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, answers reporters' questions during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol April 30, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, plans to push the Department of Education for stricter regulation of career education programs.

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Nakira McCrea was a student of the American InterContinental University, a for-profit college in Atlanta, where she was pursuing a bachelor's degree in fashion merchandising.

But in just two quarters, she says she amassed more than $25,000 in student loan debt and eventually had to drop out of the program and move back to Abingdon, Maryland, where she now works full-time as a makeup artist. 

McCrea, 28, says she was attracted to the college because it offered an accelerated program through which she was told she could earn a bachelor's degree in two years. 

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"That was just so grand to me," says McCrea, who described herself as a "B or C student" in high school. "When I got there it was great, the facility was amazing. The turning point was I just wasn’t challenged at all. It was really, really easy and I didn’t feel like I was learning anything."

The university, however, disputes McCrea’s claims. Rather than just spending two semesters at AIU, McCrea attended on three separate occasions: for one full academic year and two “subsequent enrollments,” according to Mark Spencer, a spokesman working on behalf of the university. Spencer also said records show she also attended University of Maryland University College, a not-for-profit school, which could have contributed to her overall student loan burden.

“AIU accounts for less than half of the overall student loan debt she has assumed,” he wrote in an email.

McCrea’s records cannot be shared with U.S. News without her consent and she did not immediately respond to a phone call requesting more information about her student loans.

But McCrea says she is now in default on her loans after dropping out of her program, and is having her wages garnished as a result.

"I don't pay them," she says. "Hopefully one day I hope I can make enough where I can pay this off. I obviously don't want so much debt hanging over my head for the rest of my life." 

A group of Democratic senators, led by Tom Harkin of Iowa, say this type of situation is unacceptable and on Thursday plan to push the Department of Education for stricter standards in the oversight of career colleges, such as the one McCrea attended, to ensure their graduates leave on a solid path to employment. 

The department in March issued its proposed rule known as "gainful employment" that seeks to ensure career education programs do not under-deliver when it comes to preparing students for the workforce. Many career education programs are housed in for-profit colleges that have time again come under fire for their graduates' high levels of debt and poor career prospects. Data from the department show that while 1 in 10 students attend for-profit colleges, they account for nearly half of all federal student loan defaults.

The rule is nearing the end of a 60-day comment period, and some lawmakers say its standards aren't strict enough to ensure low-performing programs don't keep receiving federal funds in the form of student financial aid. 

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Joining Harkin at a press conference Thursday morning will be Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Brian Schatz of Hawaii. Students and advocates from the group the Young Invincibles will also speak at the event. 

"There are a lot of students across the country that get promised solid careers and good jobs by these career colleges, but end up struggling under mountains of debt with little way to get out of it," says Rory O'Sullivan, deputy director of the Young Invincibles. "There are a number of loopholes [in the rule] and the standards are too weak to adequately protect consumers and taxpayers." 

O'Sullivan, who also served as the student negotiator for the department's negotiated rule-making on the regulations, says one troubling issue is that in order to fail, the program would have to miss two minimum standards related to debt-to-income ratios. The program would fail if its graduates' average student loan payments were greater than 12 percent of their average incomes and greater than 30 percent of their discretionary incomes.

"There are literally hundreds of programs that would still pass this rule, but would have graduates who on average pay all of their discretionary income in student loan payments," O'Sullivan says. "There's a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card if you can get over one and not the other."

Still, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU) – the lobbying arm of the for-profits – has claimed the rule is too strict and unfairly targets for-profit colleges. The organization has repeatedly emphasized that the regulations should be applied to all undergraduate programs, rather than just career education programs.

Steve Gunderson, the APSCU's president and CEO, said in March that if the rule were all-inclusive, programs such as "a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern, a law degree from George Washington University and a bachelor's degree in social work from Virginia Commonwealth" all would be penalized.

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Gunderson also claimed some of the provisions can hurt students. If a program is deemed failing, students cannot use their federal financial aid there. An APSCU analysis showed that at least 2 million students could lose access to programs affected by the rule by the early part of the next decade. The Department of Education also found there are 1 million students who are enrolled in programs that would either fail or fall into a "zone for improvement" who would be immediately affected.

But O'Sullivan says the rule isn't tough enough to protect students. He says one thing missing from the draft version released in December is a provision that would require programs that lose funding eligibility to give students some measure of debt relief. 

"Right now we're basically using students as guinea pigs," O'Sullivan says. "We send them to these schools and give them the grants and loans to do so, and then six or seven years down the road figure out whether the schools actually pass and lead to good jobs or not." 

Updated on May 15, 2014: This story was updated to include comments from American Intercontinental University disputing former student Nakira McCrea’s claims about student loan debt.