Getting Schooled

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In Harvard Crimson (By Jon D. Hanson, Jacob Lipton, and Sarah Paige):

With less than one week to go, the Massachusetts gubernatorial election between Martha Coakley and Charlie Baker could hardly be closer. A recent WBUR poll found that the two most important issues to voters are “making state government function better” and “making higher education more affordable in Massachusetts.” Among voters who care most about getting more bang for their tuition buck, Coakley leads Baker by 19 points. College costs, and whether Coakley can capitalize on her advantage there, could decide the election.

It is no wonder Bay Staters worry about skyrocketing costs of college. Our national economic crisis, coupled with the trillion-dollar-plus tuition-debt crisis, is weighing down a generation and threatening our future.

Both gubernatorial candidates promote policies to make college more affordable. Baker calls for lowering costs through online learning, three-year degree programs, and increasing job opportunities by enhancing connections between schools and employers. Coakley proposes a full-need financial aid policy for qualified students at state community colleges and a $5,000 tax deduction for families making contributions to the Massachusetts 529 college savings plan.

Both proposals might help. But both ignore the single most significant driver of crushing student debt: the failure to protect students from the false promises of some for-profit schools. All higher education needs reform, but many of the worst practices—including outright fraud—have been concentrated in the for-profit sector.

As Attorney General, Coakley issued new state consumer protection regulations specific to for-profit schools and sued some for-profits. Those efforts were a good first step, but unlike other consumer protection laws, those regulations are not enforceable by individual students. Schools force students to sign arbitration agreements as part of enrollment, leaving them unable to sue to enforce their rights.

To understand the appeal and danger of for-profits, one need only consider the marketing that consumes huge portions of their budgets.  The basic message is clear: our college is the path to animating and fulfilling your aspirations. A DeVry TV ad asks: “Ready for a great career?” ITT Tech promises an “education for the future.” Kaplan College allows students to “take control” of their lives. Everest College encourages prospective students to “start on the road to a rewarding career and a better life.” And Argosy University assures students: “We’re going to work together, and you’re going to come to understand that you can do this.” While that same message comes in several flavors, this same sweetener is always sprinkled on top: “Financial aid available to those who qualify.” In short, we will deliver your dreams; all you have to do is accept a loan.

That is the game. For-profit schools routinely use aggressive and sometimes abusive recruiting practices to encourage low-income students to take out federal educational loans, which are virtually impossible to discharge in bankruptcy. Schools have only to comply with minimal federal regulations to be eligible to receive this taxpayer-financed debt. While some for-profits offer reputable programs, too many exploit the system, taking in this risk-free money, raking in profits, and providing little in return.

The results are as predictable as they are tragic: Studies show that graduates of for-profit colleges are no better equipped to land a job, much less repay their new loans, than are high school graduates. More students are taking on more debt for a less valuable education. And while students at for-profit schools account for about 13 percent of college enrollments, those same students account for half of all student loan defaults. Colleges should not be able to take what they claim to be providing: their students’ futures.

Both candidates should take a decisive stand on this important issue. The entire Commonwealth suffers when its young people are caught in this student debt trap, unable to sue to assert their rights, unable to repay (or discharge) their loans, unable to invest in our shared economy, and unable to fashion a promising future. This generation is being victimized by educational charlatans and shortsighted policymakers. We owe them more than just more debt. We owe them a fighting chance.

Jon D. Hanson, Alfred Smart Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, Jacob Lipton, and Sarah Paige are participants in Harvard Law School’s Systemic Justice Project.

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