WASHINGTON — The for-profit college industry says it will vigorously oppose proposed regulations by the Obama administration designed to protect students at for-profit colleges from amassing huge debt they can't pay off.
The proposed regulations would penalize career oriented programs that produce graduates without the training needed to find a job with a salary that will allow them to pay off their debt. Schools, for-profit or not, that don't comply would lose access to the federal student aid programs.
"Career-training programs offer millions of Americans an opportunity they desperately need to further their education and reach the middle class," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters Thursday. "Today, too many of these programs fail to provide students with the training that they need at taxpayers' expense and the cost to these students' futures."
If finalized, the regulations would take effect in 2016.
In 2012, the for-profit colleges convinced a judge that similar regulations were too arbitrary. Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, said in a statement that the proposed regulations would "deny millions of students the opportunity for higher earnings." His association argues that the regulations would have a long-term impact on the nation's ability to address workforce demands and improve the economy, and he called the proposed regulations "discriminatory" and "punitive."
For-profit programs are popular among non-traditional students, some of who have been laid off during the economic downturn.
"The government should be in the business protecting opportunity not restricting it," Gunderson said. He said no decision has been made on whether more legal action will be taken.
The administration has long sought to block federal student aid from programs that do not prepare students for "gainful employment" in a recognized occupation. The programs covered under the proposed regulations include nearly all programs at for-profit schools, as well as certificate programs at public and private non-profit institutions, such as community colleges, according to the Education Department.
Duncan said for-profit colleges can receive up to 90 percent of their revenue from federal financial aid programs. If blocked from participating, some could be forced to close, he said.
"Some of these programs — whether public, private or for-profit — empower students to succeed by providing high-quality education and career training. But many of these programs, particularly those at for-profit colleges, are failing to do so," the Education Department said in a fact sheet.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said he was concerned that the proposed regulations don't go far enough in protecting students.
But Republicans criticized the administration's actions and said low-income students would be disproportionately affected.
"At a time when demand is great and the stakes are high, government should focus on increasing education opportunities, not unjustly penalizing institutions that are trying to prepare students and workers for a changing economy," said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee.
The latest proposal closely follows those that were struck down in 2012 by U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras, but it makes technical changes tailored to the court's concerns that the benchmarks were arbitrary.
"We tried to base that on expert research and mortgage industry standards for acceptable levels of debt," Duncan said.
For instance, a typical graduate should not pay more than 20 percent of his or her discretionary income to repaying loans. The previous regulations sought a limit of 30 percent of that income going to repayment.
The proposed regulation also says graduates should not be paying more than 8 percent of their total income to student loans. The department previously sought a 12 percent cap.
The proposed regulations also set a default rate of no more than 30 percent.
In many cases, students who graduate from Education Department-approved programs would keep a greater percentage of their paychecks in their pockets.
Education Department reports show for-profit programs account for about 13 percent of all college students but 46 percent of all loan defaults.
At the same time, 22 percent of for-profit student borrowers defaulted on their loans within three years. At public colleges, that number is 13 percent of borrowers.
And for schools that the Education Department could review, 72 percent of for-profit colleges produce graduates who earn less than high school dropouts.
Duncan said the proposed regulations "target those who are both failing students and taxpayers."
The public has 60 days to comment on the proposed regulations.
AP Education Writer Kimberly Hefling contributed to this report. Follow Philip Elliott on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/philip_elliott