In Congress, on the presidential campaign trail, and in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, Republicans have been unified in the belief that the Obama administration badly overreached in its attempts to regulate for-profit career colleges that leave graduates unable to pay off student debt with income from the jobs for which they were trained. Rolling back the Obama administration’s so-called “gainful employment” requirements for postsecondary career programs is thought to top the GOP’s current higher-education agenda.
What’s surprising about this GOP consensus is that it is deeply at odds with conservative practice: Republican administrations, dating back to President Eisenhower, have traditionally pressed for tighter regulation of for-profit colleges, often over the objections of Democratic lawmakers.
In earlier eras, Democrats such as Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator Paul Simon defended for-profit colleges from government regulation, citing the role that the schools played in preparing low-income students, single mothers, minorities, and dislocated workers for jobs in specific fields—the very same defenses that Republicans employ today. Charles Kolb, who served in the Education Department during the Reagan administration and in George H.W. Bush’s White House observed dryly last year that “There are future doctoral dissertations waiting to be written about how and why Democrats and Republicans reversed positions on the merits of the for-profit trade-school sector.”