U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is under fire from student advocates once again for her recent decision to delay certain aspects of the Obama-era gainful employment regulation
The advocates’ ire is aimed at the Education Department’s decision last week to delay by six months — for the second time this year — the deadline for programs to file an “alternate earnings appeal” to avoid sanctions under the gainful employment rule.
The gainful employment regulation is designed to prevent students from leaving programs with too much debt and not enough earnings to pay it off. It applies to most for-profit programs and certificate programs at private non-profit and public institutions. The Department of Education is currently seeking to rewrite the regulation.
The decision to delay also allows programs to bypass a provision that would have required a 50 percent response rate for graduate surveys about earnings as long as programs include a “nonresponse bias analysis.” It also allows programs to include “any other information requested by the Secretary that indicates that the responses are a reliable measure of the program graduates’ true earnings.
Advocates decry the decision as “improper” and “illegal” and say it puts the interests of for-profit schools ahead of the interests of students.
“Weakening the appeals process is yet another extralegal action by the Department of Education to avoid enforcing a rule its political leadership does not like,” said Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C.
“The lack of any clear standards could let any appeal pass, regardless of how ridiculous or poorly designed it is,” Miller said.
Executives at The Institute for College Access & Success, or TICAS, expressed similar concerns.
“These unilateral changes illegally gut the gainful employment regulation, opening the floodgates for schools to use federal taxpayer funds to enroll students in failing programs and reinstate low-quality programs and predatory practices,” said Pauline Abernathy, executive vice president at TICAS.
TICAS also noted that the Department of Education has taken no actions to produce new annual program rates, as required by the gainful employment regulation, and stated recently that it does not have any timetable for doing so.
Under the rule, a program is considered to lead to “gainful employment” if the estimated annual loan payment of a typical graduate is less than 20 percent of his or her discretionary income or 8 percent of his or her total earnings. Programs that exceed these levels could lose their ability to participate in taxpayer-funded federal student aid programs.
Debbie Cochrane, vice president at TICAS, said even though the department may intend to dismantle the gainful employment rule, it is still “the law of the land.”
“The Department has both a legal and moral responsibility to implement the rule with integrity and fidelity,” Cochrane said.
The Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment regarding criticism that it wrongfully pushed back the deadline for programs to file an alternate earnings appeal.
Reid Setzer, government affairs director at Young Invincibles, an organization that focuses on Americans age 18 to 34, said the Department of Education is sending a “clear message” through its actions that “under Secretary DeVos’ watch, students won’t be protected and bad-acting schools will not be held accountable.”
The Department of Education’s move also states that programs do not have to issue warnings to students about their status under gainful employment unless they fail to timely submit an alternate earnings appeal or the appeal is resolved.
U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., said the decision shows the department is “robbing students of the information they need to make informed decisions about their education.”
“The Department’s actions absolve institutions of their responsibility to educate and prepare students to be gainfully employed,” Bonamici said. “I urge the Department to rethink these harmful measures and advance policies and safeguards that protect all students and prepare them for good-paying jobs.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.