Hillbilly Irony: The GOP's Embrace Of The For-profit College Industry Clashes With Their Bootstraps Myth

03/14/2017 06:03 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2017

It’s unusual for a book to make it onto everybody’s recommended reading list. JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which relates his journey from distressed Middletown, Ohio to Yale Law school and Silicon Valley, is like the Mirror of Erised from Harry Potter: it “shows the most desperate desire of a person’s heart.” In Vance’s story, progressive media finds a Rosetta Stone for understanding Trump voters. For the right, it embodies the bootstraps myth and their message that the poor are responsible for their plight, choosing iPhones over health care.

Ironically, the lawmakers who celebrate Vance’s story are abetting an industry that preys on people who are trying to follow in his footsteps. The for-profit college industry’s efforts to weaken oversight and continue to funnel tax dollars into their coffers are a threat to those who look to higher education for a path to the middle class.

Vance‘s story illustrates that it’s absurd to simultaneously promote the bootstraps ethos and allow for-profits to run roughshod over students. Vance himself embraces the bootstraps myth, writing “I’ve seen far too many people awash in genuine desire to change only to lose their mettle when they realized just how difficult change actually is.” For-profit students work hard and leverage their futures for an education. All too often, their ‘genuine desire to change’ makes them an ATM for companies with a genuine desire to bilk them.

The likes of (now-defunct) Trump University and ITT Tech played no role in JD Vance’s story. Military service and hard-earned veterans’ benefits were his bridge to education. But thousands of veterans were lured down the for-profit college path. According to Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Education Success, a non-profit organization that assists veterans deceived by for-profit schools, “many veterans and service members are targeted with deceptive and aggressive marketing by unscrupulous for-profit colleges. These veterans and service members (and their dependents) are lied to about nearly every aspect of the college, from its accreditation and the real tuition price to the quality of education and graduates’ job prospects. Some are even lied to about their eligibility to work in licensed jobs, such as nurses, electricians, and lawyers.”

Federal law provides the industry an incentive to target veterans. The “90/10 rule” in the Higher Education Act requires for-profit colleges to receive at least ten percent of their revenues from funds other than those authorized by the Act. Because G.I. Bill funds count toward this requirement, for-profit colleges have “an incentive to see service members as nothing more than dollar signs in uniform, and to use aggressive marketing to draw them in and take out private loans, which students often need because the federal grants are insufficient to cover the full cost of tuition and related expenses.”

Vance didn’t get lured into that trap; he enrolled at Ohio State. The flagship school was more affordable than a for-profit college would have been: one credit hour at a for-profit college costs on average nearly twice as much as at a four-year public college and nearly five times as much as at a two-year public college.

Had Vance enrolled at a for-profit, his education wouldn’t have been worth much. According to Veterans Education Success, many lack the accreditation required to enable graduates to work in their fields. A 2012 report by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions shows a stark contrast between corporate success and student failure: the industry is providing a great return for shareholders and very little for students.

Elite universities like Ohio State and Yale are frequent targets of conservative ire. They employ the kind of professors whom Education Secretary DeVos has labeled threats to conservative students’ free thought and whom anti-academic bullies are trying to intimidate with a watch list “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Yet these schools make the Hillbilly Elegy success story possible. And while these schools might not have worked for non-traditional students— who need flexibility, career focus, and on-line options— community colleges offer those features for a fraction of what for-profits charge.

No one voted to give corporate bad actors like for-profit colleges the power to victimize those who are trying to work their way into the middle class. So it’s alarming that some in Congress and the Trump Administration are actively making it easier for fraudsters to do just that.

First, the Trump Administration has plans to weaken enforcement of the “gainful employment rule,” which holds for-profit colleges accountable for failing to deliver for their students. At Secretary DeVos’s confirmation hearing, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said “swindlers and crooks are out there doing backflips” celebrating the Administration’s stance. There’s a former for-profit college lobbyist working in Trump’s Department of Education. And congressional leaders and the Administration are working to gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has gone after the for-profit industry for its shady lending practices.

Without executive branch protections, students defrauded by this industry can turn to the court system. That’s how victims of the Trump University scam recouped their losses. However, the GOP-controlled House just passed a bill that would radically curtail access to the civil justice system. The legislation has been described as “a huge gift to banks that cheat their customers, corporations that pay women less than men and businesses like Trump University.“

With congressional leadership and the Administration working to stack the deck against students, it’s no wonder for-profit college industry stock prices shot up after the election. This is ironic: much like Trumpcare, these policies are likely to hit Trump voters hard. Their money, effort, and hard-earned veterans’ benefits could be diverted into corporate coffers and their dreams traded for dividends. While the likes of Jason Chaffetz, Paul Ryan, and the President tell the poor to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they’re pulling a fast one on us all.

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