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What Reading 900+ Comments Tells Us About the Coming Gainful Employment Re-Regulation

Published:  June 13, 2013

Circle September 9 on your calendars. That's the date according to a Federal Register notice published yesterday that the Department of Education will bring together a committee to develop new regulations defining gainful employment. While it had been clear since a notice published in mid-May that the Department was going to be considering gainful employment in its next round of rulemaking, yesterday's announcement provides exact timing for negotiations, as well as the types of negotiators to be considered. 

With the first negotiating session still not for several months, it is going to be some time before the Department puts forth any public proposal, but with more than 900 public comments already submitted in response to initial thoughts on the regulatory agenda, there's already some clear indications of what we can expect to see from a policy standpoint. In a separate post I'll put up some of the more interesting comments received from students. (New America also submitted its own comments on the regulations, which can be found here.)

Arguments in favor--stronger, more comprehensive

By far the largest number of comments came similar short submissions calling for a stronger rule and protections for students and taxpayers (see here for an example). On the more substantive side, a few themes emerged:

The gainful employment rule should be stronger: Multiple comments cited the 2011 rule's "nine strikes and you're out" policy whereby a program had to fail each of three measures for three years straight as being overly generous. Several comments called for initiating penalties for programs that failed two out of the three measures. Others, such as those from The Institute for College Access and Success argued for a higher threshold on the repayment rate based upon prior studies of delinquency and default as well as how Congress set thresholds for cohort default rates. Not surprisingly, among the most thoughtful and creative comments were those from Robert Shireman, the former Department official who helped craft the initial set of regulation. Shireman's comments suggested a new structure that would draw distinctions between institutional and program eligibility depending on repayment rates, with debt to earnings tests used if repayment rates fell below a certain level.

Accountability in this space is about more than just gainful employment: Many comments touched on the idea that gainful employment is only one piece of an accountability framework that also includes cohort default rates and the 90/10 rule. Given that, many commenters stressed the need for the Department to address the use of deferments and forbearances by some institutions to keep their default rates low by limiting the number of students that could default during the measurement window. Similarly, commenters also stressed the need to consider tactics like delaying the disbursement of student aid funds so some dollars would not count as part of the 90/10 calculation for a given year.

Relief for borrowers at failing programs: The final gainful employment regulation never included any relief for borrowers that had debt from a program that eventually lost eligibility on the grounds that discharge requirements were statutory and could not be changed. This time, several comments, such as those from the National Consumer Law Center, stressed that borrowers in programs that lose eligibility should be given relief much the same way that those who attend institutions that shut down receive assistance.

Job placement matters: The comments also included several submissions from attorneys general from states such as Colorado, Illinois, and Kentucky. One issue these focused on is the importance of greater clarity in definitions of successful job placement. Inaccurate, misleading, and outright fraudulent have been an ongoing problem at some proprietary institutions for many years, but the lack of a clear definition can make enforcement of the issue more complicated (the Department's National Center for Education Statistics did hold a technical review panel on creating a definition a few years ago, but did not end up putting together a definition).

Arguments against--wait for reauthorization 

Not surprisingly, there was a pretty clear divide on whether the Department should approach the gainful employment rule again, and what to do so if it does. In general, proprietary colleges and their lobby groups argued that the Department should delay action on the grounds that Congress would be scheduled to reauthorize the Higher Education Act in short order (see page 2 of the comments from the industry's main lobby group, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities for a typical form of this argument). Since reauthorizations these days have a cicada-like periodicity  that's effectively calling for a delay of many years.

In a similar vein, several institutions also brought forward the idea that the gainful employment rule should be applied to all types of institutions, not just a subset of programs at public and private nonprofit institutions and essentially all programs at proprietary colleges. DeVry and LIM College had the clearest forms of this argument, while Strayer University took a slightly different approach, arguing why it resembles other institutions that are not subject to the gainful employment requirement and should thus be excluded. (Whether including more programs is legally allowable, a good policy idea, or just something that would be designed to get other sectors of higher education opposed is debatable.) 

By far the two most thoughtful and interesting comments from those opposed to gainful employment came from Strayer University and Champion College Services, which provides default management and would have provided gainful employment support if the rule were still in effect. Strayer's comments suggests relying on the cohort default rate to set thresholds and penalties, while Champion put forth an argument for creating a repayment rate that is based on the number of borrowers, not dollars, and define "repayment" as not being in default or more than 120 days delinquent. Other ideas more commonly raised included allowing institutions to limit the amount of debt a student can take on and risk-adjusting the measures based upon the characteristics of students enrolled. 

Not surprisingly then, we're already clearly headed for a pretty significant divide on the policy questions in gainful employment. In a subsequent post I'll pull out some of the more interesting submissions from former students and faculty at proprietary institutions. 

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