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“I think a lot of [critics] haven’t even been to an actual [for-profit] school,” said Penny Lee, managing director of the Coalition of Educational Success, which represents more than 70 career colleges across the country. “They’re not used to having a business model associated with education.”

Ms. Lee, a political strategist who has worked for prominent Democrats including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, said many in her party simply can’t stomach the words “education” and “profit” in the same sentence.

She likened it to the for-profit hospital system, which in many areas has largely replaced medical centers affiliated with the Catholic Church, for example.

The negative publicity has taken its toll.

Mr. Jenkins said Corinthian stock prices tumbled after a particularly harsh Senate hearing last year. They also took a big hit last summer after the Government Accountability Office released a stinging report that found misleading or deceptive practices at 15 randomly selected for-profits.

The GAO later revised its report and released audiotapes of the undercover interviews it conducted, but the office stands by the report’s general findings.

Senate Republicans now call the report “flawed.”

Mr. Jenkins disputes the notion that for-profits don’t care about student loan defaults and graduation rates and argues that Everest and other nontraditional colleges have “a lot of skin” in the game when it comes to making sure students get what they pay for. He said the federal government isn’t wasting money in the form of Pell Grants and student loans.

The firestorm may just be getting started. The U.S. Department of Education this week finalized its proposed “gainful employment” regulation, designed to hold for-profits accountable for the taxpayer money they receive. The proposal has been sent to the White House budget office for review.

Although it is unclear exactly what the proposal will be, the original draft from last year would bar for-profit programs from accepting students paying with taxpayer money if less than 35 percent of former students don’t begin repaying their loans within three years.

Ms. Lee said she has been told that the revised version will be less harsh, but still could have a “devastating effect” on the industry.

“Many of them, likely, will cease to operate,” she said.

Like for-profit proponents and many congressional Republicans, Mr. Jenkins said, the Education Department and critics such as Mr. Harkin make a huge mistake by focusing their attention exclusively on for-profits instead of addressing problems across the spectrum of higher education.

For-profits, he said, play a different role than public universities, and students are and should continue to be free to make their own choices.

“If you want to go to [New York University], major in political thought, pay 50 grand a year and then be a barista at Starbucks, that’s your choice,” he said. “Our students aren’t coming here for that.”