The U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos this week began the next step in dismantling the rules issued under President Obama to constrain the predatory abuses of for-profit colleges against students and taxpayers. Last month, the department moved toward taking apart the “borrower defense rule,” which created standards and procedures for students injured by their schools to obtain debt relief. This week, the rule on the chopping block is “gainful employment,” which established bare minimum measures to penalize schools that consistently leave their students with insurmountable debt. Today, at the end of the troubling first day of what’s called negotiated rulemaking on the gainful employment rule, members of the public were given an opportunity to speak. I was the only one to speak, and I said this:
This proceeding is blocking a regulation that was carefully considered and carefully crafted to protect students and taxpayers from well-documented abuses by some career colleges. Blocking the gainful employment rule means that more students will enroll in programs that will ruin their financial futures.
These students, as before, will be veterans, single mothers, people of color, immigrants, and the forgotten Americans President Trump promised to fight for. Many will enroll because of false promises about the selectivity of the school, the urgency of enrolling immediately, the cost of attending, transferability of credits, job placement, starting salaries. Many will enroll in programs that aren’t strong enough to help them succeed.
Even if these students graduate ― and many don’t ― and even if they get the job they dreamed of ― and many won’t ― they may not earn enough to pay down their loans, because the tuition was just too high. That is the problem the GE rule addressed, implementing a law passed by Congress in 1965.
My colleagues and I know hundreds of men and women who are buried in debt from attending dishonest schools, or simply overpriced schools. They’re good people. All they wanted was a chance to pursue their dreams and make better lives for their families. But instead of standing with them, Secretary DeVos is now standing with the people who have caused the harm, the people who have pocketed billions and required taxpayer bailout after taxpayer bailout.
The gainful employment rule would save money for taxpayers by pushing the department to remove from federal aid those schools that leave students worse off than when they enrolled.
But the issue papers prepared by the department for this meeting suggest its determination to cancel legitimate protections for students and taxpayers.
I know and respect some owners and executives of for-profit schools. Some really do want the best for their students. The industry has many good teachers. There are many student success stories; I know some of these students, too.
Some owners expressed legitimate concerns during past rule makings. But over eight years of the last administration, the department took those concerns into consideration, and I believe we ended up with rules and policies that are more than fair to schools, rules that penalize bad actors while rewarding colleges that actually help students train for careers.
The department announced in January that about 800 programs failed the GE test ― less than 10 percent of all GE programs.
I’m dismayed that owners whose programs passed or came close to passing GE don’t want to step up and make their programs work, instead of fighting to trash regulations that would put their most unscrupulous, irresponsible competitors ― the ones who have ruined the industry’s reputation ― out of business.
This process today is, in reality, about the corruption of our system. It’s about the blatant desire of some for-profit colleges, which are associated with political appointees, donors, and friends of this administration, to go back to the recent bad old days, when they could act with impunity ― deceiving and abusing students in order to maximize profits. Their misconduct, which has led to scores of federal and state law enforcement actions, and is still very much ongoing, has been a national scandal. And if you don’t do the right thing here, this proceeding will extend and embody that scandal.
State attorneys general ― Republicans and Democrats ― will continue to fight against for-profit college fraud. Responsible Members of Congress, media, and advocates for students will continue to expose abuses, and more prospective students will get the truth about bad actors, even if Secretary DeVos continues to weaken enforcement efforts, relax oversight of accreditors, approve sham conversions to non-profit status, and gut accountability rules. The department will be on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of justice, and the wrong side of our people.
Keep the existing gainful employment rule. If you do, you will improve the effectiveness, integrity, reputation, and ultimately the success of career colleges, and you will help these students.
This article also appears on Republic Report.