For-profit colleges, faced with the threat of program closures, have gone on a lobbying and public-relations blitz, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attempt to beat back an Education Department proposal to cut off federal student aid to for-profit programs whose graduates carry high debt-to-income loads.

In the five months since the department offered its controversial "gainful-employment proposal," for-profit colleges and their chief association have spent at least $620,000 lobbying members of Congress, the Education Department, and the Office of Management and Budget, which is reviewing the department's proposed rule (see related article, with tables). The University of Phoenix, the nation's largest for-profit institution, has taken out ads in major publications, including The Chronicle, defending the sector and arguing against the rule, while for-profit colleges are urging their students to sign on to a petition opposing the plan.

For-profit lobbyists and executives are swarming Capitol Hill and federal agencies, pushing an alternative plan that would require programs only to provide prospective students with more information about their graduates' debt levels and salaries. During the Career College Association's annual "Hill Day" in March, members of the organization met with aides from nearly every Congressional office. Their message: The proposal would cost jobs and limit access to college at a time when President Obama is pushing education as a solution to high unemployment.

In an attempt to discredit the proposal, some opponents have tried to paint Robert M. Shireman, who as deputy under secretary is the department's top political appointee on higher-education issues, as a rogue actor. But even critics of the plan acknowledge that Mr. Shireman, who is stepping down this summer, was not the sole author of the proposal.

Lobbyists for the for-profit sector say the last time there was a lobbying push of this magnitude was in 1992, when the Education Department was crafting rules governing commissions for college recruiters. The fight extends all the way to the top, with the chief executives of major for-profit companies like ITT Educational Services, the Career Education Corporation, and Corinthian Colleges holding meetings with agency heads.

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