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Durbin warns educators about for-profit colleges


A teacher at DeVry University, Chicago, raffles off books at “SQL Saturday,” March 26, 2011 (Michael Kappel via Flickr)

Sen Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, sent a letter on May 7 to high school principals, counselors, and teachers, asking for help in an effort to protect students from the abuses many students suffer from for-profit colleges.

He delivered a similar message last year around this time, here, but the list of institutions has been expanded, and other professional groups have weighed in.

“I ask you to use your position in Illinois’s high schools to ensure your students have the information necessary to protect themselves from the worst players in this industry,” he wrote in the current letter, which is reprinted below in its entirety.

Too often, I think, kids who aspire to a college education are lured by profit-seeking organizations pretending to offer a bachelor’s or associate’s degree that carries some weight. The courses of study on which these students embark often turn into “nightmares,” Mr Durbin wrote, as students get a worthless degree, unrecognized by employers, accumulate credits that don’t transfer, and end up with bigger debts than their peers who attend traditional public and private colleges, universities, and community colleges.

The for-profit college industry receives more than $25 billion in federal dollars. That’s enough funding to make it the ninth largest federal agency. While they enroll only about 10 percent of all college students, they take in 20% of the Department of Education’s federal student aid funds and account for 44 percent of student loan defaults, the senator’s office said in a press release announcing the letter.

May 7, 2015

Dear Principal/Counselor/Teacher:

I write to ask for your help to ensure that your students are receiving honest and accurate information about their higher education options.

Every day, your students are bombarded by attention-grabbing advertisements from for-profit colleges offering a hassle-free enrollment process, federal financial assistance, flexible schedules and a promised path to high-paying jobs and a better life. But too often it doesn’t work out that way. I have heard too many heartbreaking stories of Illinois students, often low-income or minority students, who thought they were doing the right thing by signing up at a for-profit college. After attending, many students find their dream has turned into a nightmare when they end up with a worthless degree that employers don’t even recognize, credits that don’t transfer, and almost twice the average debt of their fellow students who attended traditional public schools. For-profit colleges account for 44 percent of all federal student loan defaults.

Since I last wrote you, we have witnessed the single greatest collapse of a for-profit college in history and seen the devastating effect it has had on students. Corinthian Colleges Incorporated had an enrollment of 72,000 students at dozens of campuses across the country, including around 3,000 here in Illinois, when it collapsed under the weight of its own wrongdoing. Among other things, Corinthian had been inflating its job placement rates for years to lure students into its high-cost programs. This fraudulent conduct finally caught up to Corinthian Colleges, but they’ve left thousands of struggling indebted students in their wake.

Many other for-profit colleges are facing increased scrutiny from federal and state agencies for a variety of abuses including fraudulent marketing and recruiting practices, falsifying job placement rates, and predatory lending practices. According to a chart published by the Chronicle of Higher Education and other publicly available information, the following for-profit companies that operate campuses or programs in Illinois are facing active investigations or lawsuits by the Illinois Attorney General and/or federal agencies:

In addition, a number of these for-profit companies operating in Illinois are part of the Department of Education’s recently released Heightened Cash Monitoring (HCM) list, which means they are under stricter scrutiny by the Department for financial or compliance issues. This list serves, in the words of Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell, as a “caution light” for students. Companies operating in Illinois with schools on HCM include:

I ask you to use your position in Illinois’s high schools to ensure your students have the information necessary to protect themselves from the worst players in this industry, including information on investigations and lawsuits by government agencies. You should also help your students access data on student outcomes, like graduation and default rates, through resources like the President’s College Scorecard.

Finally, it is important that students understand there are alternatives to for-profit colleges. Unfortunately, a recent survey by Public Agenda found that 75 percent of for-profit college students didn’t consider public or non-profit colleges before enrolling in a for-profit school. Community colleges often offer similar programs as for-profits and at a fraction of the cost with credits that will transfer to other schools. I encourage you to work closely with your local community colleges and other not-for-profit institutions to ensure students have information on these programs.

For the sake of your students, I hope you will give serious consideration to my requests. I look forward to working with you on behalf of Illinois students.

Editor’s note: A new report from the Woodstock Institute shows that most of the students at for-profit colleges are low-income students. Despite being big consumers of for-profit colleges, these low-income students tend to pay more at those institutions after grant aid—nearly $10,000 in 2011-12—than they pay at nonprofit four-years (about $2,000) or at public colleges ($0). The report puts the blame for this upside-down world of paying for college squarely on the business practices and financial incentives at for-profit colleges.
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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