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GOP senators noncommittal on inquiry into college funds

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Senate Republicans still haven't decided whether they will show up for Tuesday's hearing on for-profit colleges, the primary target of the Education Department's controversial "gainful employment" rule released last week.

GOP members of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee have threatened to boycott the hearing, claiming that Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and the panel chairman, has unfairly singled out for-profits in four previous sessions.

Last week, Republicans relented and agreed to attend part of the hearing in order to question Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the gainful employment regulation, which will deny federal dollars to nontraditional colleges if they don't meet at least one of three benchmarks.

But the Education Department announced Monday that, because of an illness, Mr. Duncan won't attend. Instead, Undersecretary Martha Kanter will answer questions in his place, again putting Republican participation in doubt.

"It is still up in the air if HELP Committee GOP members will be attending now that Sec. Duncan won't be testifying," said Joe Brenckle, spokesman for the panel's Republicans, in a written statement.

In a letter to Mr. Harkin last week, Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican and his party's ranking member on the HELP Committee, said Republicans would be there because Mr. Duncan "is due the respect and attention of the full committee," and Republicans have been waiting for him to testify before the committee for more than a year.

Even in Mr. Duncan's absence and even in the event of a Republican boycott, much of the testimony is expected to revolve around the gainful employment measure, praised by many Democrats and criticized by Republicans and others.

The rule will prohibit for-profit programs from accepting students getting government aid money if fewer than 35 percent of former students had begun to repay their loans within three years; the estimated loan payment of a typical graduate does not exceed 30 percent of discretionary income; and if the estimated loan payment of an average graduate does not exceed 12 percent of total earnings.

A program must fall short on all three counts for three consecutive years before being cut off from taxpayer money. The regulations go into effect in July 2012, meaning no school could be penalized until 2015.

The rule "is a modest and important first step to protect students and taxpayers from subprime academic programs that have demonstrated a track record of failure," Mr. Harkin said in a statement last week.

He cites the fact that while for-profits account for 10 percent of college students nationwide, they get nearly 25 percent of federal financial aid and have higher-than-average dropout rates and loan default numbers.

Republicans have countered that there are problems in higher education as a whole, and Mr. Harkin and the Education Department are making a serious mistake by focusing on for-profits.

The GOP-led House Education and the Workforce Committee is considering legislation to blunt the impact of the gainful employment rule, though such a measure would also have to clear the Democrat-controlled Senate, making it unlikely any bill would pass before next summer's effective date.

Ms. Kanter will testify during the second half of Tuesday's hearing. During the first half, four other witnesses will answer questions, including a former student at a for-profit institution.

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