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Sarah Sertic thought she was headed down the right path when, in her mid-20s, she enrolled in the Art Institute of Washington’s photography program.

But two years later, Sertic was a $25,000-in-the-hole dropout, with no degree and no job prospects in sight. The school, she said during a recent phone interview, had failed to give her the classes and skills she needed to succeed, and grossly undersold the expense.

“They promise you the world,” she said during a recent phone interview. “What you get in return is not what they promised you.”

Chris Hardman, vice president of communications for Education Management Company, which owns the Art Institute, said in a statement to Fusion that the school goes “to great lengths to help students understand what they are signing up for when they attend our schools, including costs of education.” He did not comment specifically on Sertic’s case.

Sertic’s story is not uncommon. For-profit colleges are facing mounting pressure from students over what they say is a lack of transparency, deliberate attempts to confuse vulnerable attendees and a failure to graduate employable students.

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The job prospects of for-profit attendees, specifically, have become the subject of a hot debate on Capitol Hill. The Education Department is currently accepting public comment on a proposal known as the gainful employment rule. Broadly, the rule would cut federal aid to schools who don’t graduate students who are able to find jobs and repay their student loans. The government wants to make sure that students get the training they need to enter jobs that pay incomes high enough to make student loan payments feasible and the temporary debt worthwhile.

Student groups like the Young Invincibles hail the idea but think the department has allowed the vast lobbying power of the for-profit industry to weaken the proposal by adding loopholes that allow them to meet the standards more easily.

Rory O'Sullivan, deputy director of Young Invincibles and someone who has served on a committee put together by the Education Department to consider proposed rules, said during a recent phone interview that he’s disappointed that newer drafts of the proposed rule have cut student protections, like provisions allowing students to recoup money spent at schools found to be inferior.

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Photo: Courtesy of Young Invincibles

Young Invincibles Deputy Director Rory O’Sullivan speaks at a press conference held by student advocates at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday in Washington, D.C.

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The Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The for-profit educational institutions have their defenders, too. Noah Black, a spokesman for the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, a group that lobbies on behalf of such colleges, says the proposed rule singles out schools that serve nontraditional students for whom traditional, public schools simply don’t work.

The rule would apply to for-profit vocational programs and non-degree granting programs at community colleges and other nonprofits. But Black says if it were applied equally, to pricey law schools and religious schools, for example, then some of those schools would fail the standards.

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“If they’re holding this up as the gold standard for what student protections should be,” he said, “then why not apply it to all of higher education?”

Black pointed out that by the government’s own data, a higher percentage of students at for-profit colleges complete degree or certificate programs than at community colleges.

But student advocates rightly counter that data shows for-profit colleges account for a disproportionate percentage of loan defaults. While about one in 10 students studies at a for-profit school, such schools account for nearly half of all defaults.

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People who go to for-profits, they say, are far more likely to be sucked into crushing debt.

Mike DiGiacomo, a U.S. army veteran who says he was pulled into a for-profit college in Massachusetts by glossy marketing brochures and persistent salesmen, has more than $85,000 in student loans. He was told that his animation degree would help him land the video gaming job he coveted, but it turned out the school really didn’t have any connections that could help him land a job. DiGiacomo is now unemployed.

For-profits have been accused of targeting veterans who come with enticing GI Bill funding. And the Justice Department just reached a $60 million settlement with Sallie Mae for overcharging veterans.

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While DiGiacomo isn’t sure the settlement will impact him personally, he thinks for-profit colleges need to graduate more employable students if they’re going to be eligible for federal aid.

“We offer our sincere apologies to the servicemen and servicewomen who were affected by our processing errors and thus did not receive the full benefits they deserve,”Jack Remondi, president and CEO of Navient, which previously operated as Sallie Mae, said in a statement. “Over the past several years we have implemented changes in our procedures and training programs to prevent these mistakes from happening again.”

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Photo: Emily DeRuy/Fusion

(L-R) Mike DiGiacomo, Dymond Blackmon, Nakira McCrea and Sarah Sertic (front) appeared at a press conference held by student advocates on Thursday at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

The Education Department is accepting comment on its proposed gainful employment rule until late May. After that, the department will settle on the final rule. The last time the department debated the issue, several years ago, a judge struck down a portion of the rule as arbitrary. Litigation is not unlikely again, with for-profits confident from their last victory and fighting more regulation.

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Several senators are proposing legislation that would hold for-profits more accountable, but Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said during a press conference on Thursday that would be “very hard at this time.”

His colleague Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) added that he “ran into a buzz saw in the House” when he promoted legislation aimed at protecting veterans from for-profit colleges.

The lawmakers said action needs to come from the administration. While they commended Education Secretary Arne Duncan for focusing on holding for-profit schools accountable, they also urged him to do more.

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Young Invincibles has rolled out a series of campaigns — Twitter chats, meetings with students on college campuses and Thursday’s press conference — to mobilize students to comment on the rule and pressure the department.

Sertic, who attended the conference, struggled to find employment after she left the Art Institute. Potential employers told her she’d wasted her time and said she hadn’t been taught the skills she needed to succeed.

Eventually, after taking a few courses at a local photography clinic, she opened her own studio. Things appeared to be looking up, but a car accident last year left her largely unable to work and wheelchair-bound with serious back injuries. While the government “bent over backwards” to help her defer payments on her federal loans, Sertic said, Sallie Mae “did not make it very easy,” she said.

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For-profits aren’t necessarily all bad, she said, but there needs to be a way to figure out which ones are not holding up their end of the bargain.

“They need to be truthful,” she said.

(Photo provided by Senate Democrats.)

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.