The history of American higher education is a tour of enlightened self-regulation. Professors, alumni, parents and students nurtured a higher education system that made our citizens the living pillars of our democracy. Each generation’s children had the opportunity to climb the ladder of economic opportunity.
But things have changed. Billboards, television commercials and radio broadcasts now herald a different culture for higher education, with for-profit colleges purporting to be the vanguard. Let’s look at the results to date.
For-profit colleges enrolled just 12 percent of students but accounted for 44 percent of student loan defaults in 2013 nationwide. The U.S. Department of Education determined that 72 percent of for-profit college graduates earn less than those who drop out of high school. Nearly 90 percent of for-profit graduates have student loans. Taxpayers ultimately pick up the cost of federal loan defaults when these students can’t find jobs.
Some for-profit “career schools” have saddled students with tens of thousands of dollars of loan debt by misrepresenting job placement rates and the transferability of credits, and by enrolling students in programs that will not even qualify them for employment in their field. Seven of the top eight for-profit colleges that receive GI Bill benefits are under investigation by state or federal regulators for deceptive recruiting or other potential law violations, according to a U.S. Senate Report. Attorneys General in over 25 states have sued, settled with, or are investigating for-profit colleges for their recruiting, marketing, enrollment and/or job placement practices.
Against this backdrop, the Attorney General’s office drafted Senate File 696/House File 234, a bill pending at the State Capitol. The measure would give students better information about job placement rates, graduation rates and limitations on credit transferability. In short, a pretty innocent bill that would cost taxpayers no money but would interject some transparency and basic fairness for students.
Yet, the bill faces a steep climb at the Capitol. Few deny that students are getting hurt. Instead, detractors claim that in 2014 the Minnesota Legislature allowed state regulators to largely outsource their oversight of out-of-state online, for-profit colleges to the school’s home state via an “agreement.” The “agreement,” however, was never designed to fix — nor does it fix — the abuses carried out by for-profit schools. It merely is an excuse to protect the industry by claiming that the state cannot regulate how online schools treat Minnesota students.
The tsunami of student loan debt has crushed the hopes and dreams of far too many young people. Minnesota has a responsibility to defend these students against abuses by for-profit colleges.
State and federal laws require companies that sell securities to inform potential investors of significant information about the company and the investment — including its risks — so that they can make informed judgments about whether to invest. We should require no less for our students. After all, these companies are selling their programs as investments too — investments in young people’s futures.
Lori Swanson is attorney general of Minnesota.