For-profit colleges celebrated the ruling, "which makes it clear that you can't make random decisions that seek to significantly impact one sector of higher education," said Steve Gunderson, president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the plaintiff in the case.
The rules required career-training programs to meet one of three standards: 35 percent of graduates must be repaying loans; loan payments of typical graduates did not exceed 12 percent of their total earnings; or loan payments did not exceed 30 percent of graduates' discretionary income.
In his ruling, Judge Rudolph Contreras called the 35 percent standard "arbitrary and capricious." He said the department chose that threshold based not on expert research or an industry standard, but because it would result in about a quarter of the career-training programs failing.
"It's an unusual way of thinking," Gunderson said. "Why would you eliminate 25 percent of programs offered to students most in need of education and skills?"
The judge upheld the department's right to require career-training programs to inform students about graduation and placement rates, as well as median debt load for students in their programs.
A spokesman for the department could not say whether it would be readjusting regulations or appealing the decision. He said he was pleased that the judge signaled a need for regulation.
"The court upheld our authority to regulate career college programs while urging a clearer rationale for standards around repayment rates," Peter Cunningham said in a statement.
The Department of Education reviewed 3,695 career-training programs at 1,336 public, for-profit, and nonprofit schools over two years. It found that 193 programs, all at for-profit institutions, were not meeting any of the gainful employment metrics, according to data released by the department last week.
While the decision affects career-training programs at the federal level, California Gov. Jerry Brown still plans to withhold state Cal Grants from students at for-profit colleges that don't meet state loan-repayment and graduation standards.