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Now let's talk about the checks you send to a college and what you get for them.

For-profit colleges and universities have been facing criticism from some in Congress who say the schools have overly aggressive recruiting campaigns, high fees and low graduation rates. There's a lot of talk of stricter regulation. For-profit schools have responded with a lobbying campaign in advance of a Senate hearing today. The universities are presenting what they say is the best evidence that their schools work: the students themselves.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa says he just wants to answer some basic questions: why is it that for-profit colleges are attracting huge numbers of new students but producing so few degrees? Why do so many for-profit students default on their student loans?

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): Why are such large numbers of students turning over, presumably dropping out?� Are they leaving these schools with debt and no degree?�How can that be happening in such large numbers?

ABRAMSON: In a third hearing on the subject today, Harkin's Health and Education Committee will present more damning evidence against the for-profit industry. The hearing will likely add to the portrait of for-profit students as hapless victims of ruthless recruiting campaigns.�But the committee will not hear from students who love their for-profit schools.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

Ms. MARA HANSEN: I've got it.

ABRAMSON: Mara Hansen is a 35-year-old single mom. She lives with her daughter and her dog in a small apartment in Winchester, Virginia. When she was younger, Hansen learned the hard way what it's like to survive without a college degree.

Ms. HANSEN: I used to work for my parents in the family business, selling beef jerky at motorcycle events and swap meets and boat shows, and stuff like that.

ABRAMSON: She knew she could do better, so she went to a local community college in Northern Virginia and got an associate's degree in information technology. But she felt she had only been�schooled on theory - she wasn't really ready to go to work.

Mara Hansen signed up for ITT Technical Institute, a for-profit school with a campus in Chantilly, Virginia, where tuition alone averages $17,000 a year. In exchange, Hansen says, she got the hands-on training she needed.

Ms. HANSEN: Every class, you were in the lab doing, you know, lab work and, you know, working with the exchange servers and configuring�accounts and�writing programs.

ABRAMSON: Thanks to that experience, Hansen says, she felt completely confident taking on a job with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It pays about $40,000 a year to start, and has great benefits. That allows her enough cash to pay her student loan bill of $125 a month.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

ABRAMSON: Hundreds of students like Mara Hansen came to a rally in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. They came willingly, they said, but their transportation was paid by the industry.

They listened to politicians like Congressman Alcee Hastings of Florida, who railed against proposed regulations that could shut down for-profit programs whose students are not successful.

Representative ALCEE HASTINGS (Democrat, Florida): Private-sector colleges are instrumental to developing a world-class workforce and serve as a talent pipeline...

ABRAMSON: The trouble right now, according to many observers, is that students can't really tell which programs are world-class and which are rip-offs.

Pauline Abernathy with the Institute for College Access and Success, says much of the information is misleading.

Ms. PAULINE ABERNATHY (Institute for College Access and Success): The graduation rates only look at first-time, full-time students. The placement rates are also self-reported and have been�found to often be inflated.

ABRAMSON: That's why Abernathy supports proposed government rules. They�would create a new measure for these schools - whether students can repay their debt. Abernathy says that would be a first step toward figuring out whether for-profit success stories are real or just part of the industry's advertising campaign.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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