Published May 27, 2011
President Obama and his education secretary are facing a bipartisan revolt from almost 300 lawmakers, an inspector general's investigation and several lawsuits over a proposed crackdown on for-profit colleges, which train people for jobs ranging from plumbers to computer technicians.
"Can you think of any other issue that former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the current Speaker John Boehner agree on?" asked Lanny Davis, a former legal counsel to President Clinton. "The policy is so wrongheaded that it brings liberals and conservatives together."
What's causing all the ruckus? A proposed regulation from the administration is aimed at what are known as career or vocational schools which train medical technicians, chefs, welders, electricians and the like. The rule would cut federal aid to programs where student debt levels are deemed to be too high and where students are struggling to repay their loans.
But many critics are puzzled by the administration's move. And they question whether the standards are too strict.
"There seems to be a big urgency here to go after for-profit colleges who educate a high number of African-American and Hispanic people in our communities," Harry Alford, the head of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, told Fox News. "And for some reason, it's full speed ahead."
Melanie Sloan of the liberal watchdog group Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington notes it is "a regulation that would affect only for-profit colleges, not non for-profit colleges."
Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., thinks he may know why. "I think there is a bias against for-profit schools that has informed this rule."
Many students at these colleges are poor and use federally backed student loans. Andrews told Fox News the idea behind the regulation idea was to make sure poor students aren't persuaded to borrow a lot of money, then get an education they can't afford and that doesn't lead to a job.
But he argues the proposed regulation goes about it the wrong way and sets a standard that would be almost impossible for poor graduates to satisfy.
"If your student loan payments make up more than about 8 per cent of your monthly income, the school can't get federal financial aid anymore," Andrews said. "It sort of knocks the school out of business."
Critics say most community colleges and universities couldn't pass that standard either, but aren't being asked to.
"There are first-year residents from Harvard Medical School whose student loan payments eat up 20 or 25 percent of their income. Is Harvard Medical School a bad medical school? I sure don't think so," Andrews said.
So, the proposed regulation would hit poor students the hardest because many can't afford college and depend on loans to attend career schools to develop new skills or a new career.
"Minority kids and lower income kids who go to these career colleges are about to be decimated if this regulation goes through," Davis said.
That's why the regulation is opposed by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, among others, who were among 113 lawmakers who wrote Obama a month ago and urged him to back off, saying "the implementation of these new rules will be so burdensome and the projected impact so broad that many reputable schools, particularly those serving the most at-risk students, will be adversely impacted."
The Education Department issued a statement to Fox News saying this is an effort to "curb abuses by for-profit colleges. Far too many of these schools are saddling students with unmanageable debts, in exchange for largely worthless degrees."
The critics of the regulation acknowledge some schools have questionable practices but say attacking the whole industry is not the solution.
"If someone is committing fraud, go after them, go after them with a vengeance," Alford said. "But don't paint all these schools, a certain segment of our educational system as being fraudulent."
Davis argued that the Education Department shouldn't even be considering such a rule. "You don't make law that has such immense impact on kids that are vulnerable by regulation. You do it by legislation," he said.
Nevertheless, many expect the regulation to be issued this week.