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Hey Marco Rubio: What About For-Profit Colleges?

Submitted by on February 14, 2013 – 4:20 pm5 Comments

Liberals have predictably torn apart Sen. Marco Rubio‘s SOTU response. But criticism has focused mainly on the hypocrisy of his criticism of government programs while highlighting his use of federal student loans and health care, and the falsehood he repeated that government policies caused the subprime real estate crash. But surprisingly, few are talking about Rubio’s possible support of dubious for-profit colleges and universities- and the implications of praising these institutions that drain target the most desperate, and frequently leave them saddled with debt and no degree, all while abusing federal funds.

In his speech, the freshman senator from Florida described non-traditional students in higher education, and praised efforts to reach them:

A 21st century workforce should not be forced to accept 20th century education solutions. Today’s students aren’t only 18 year olds. They’re returning veterans. They’re single parents who decide to get the education they need to earn a decent wage. And they’re workers who have lost jobs that are never coming back and need to be retrained.

We need student aid that does not discriminate against programs that non-traditional students rely on – like online courses, or degree programs that give you credit for work experience.

Kevin Carey at Slate notes that this appears to be a rare area of agreement between Republicans and the president. In policy proposals accompanying the State of the Union, President Obama’s administration rather stunningly advocated for an “alternative” system of accreditation for higher education.

But Obama’s policy may have been targeted at free ventures like Massive Online Open Courses and edX, a joint venture of Harvard and MIT. On the other hand, Rubio’s specific emphasis on veterans, the working poor, and “non-traditional students”- as well as his party’s stated support- makes me thinking he was using the coded language popular among predatory for-profit programs.

For-profit colleges and universities, including Kaplan University, the University of Phoenix, the Art Institutes and many others, frequently target the most needy members of society, including veterans and the working poor. They then often hide behind the mantel of “catering to non-traditional students” to justify their abysmal rates of graduation and debt repayment, and substandard educations.

As this profile from the Village Voice describes, these colleges and universities use recruiting tactics that seem closer to psychological profiling than anything else, in a system that seems eerily similar to the subprime mortgage industry. The recruiters also disobey loopholes outlawing payment and promotion based on enrollment. A former industry official described it as a near perfect scam: the university gets the federal loan money, and the student gets the debt.

And while non-profit colleges and universities have to answer serious questions about whether they are offering valuable education for their sky-high tuition, data clearly shows that for-profit institutions are creating a hugely disproportionate amount of the problem when it comes to student debt. For-profit colleges educate only 10% of the college-going public (still tripling in a decade), but consume a quarter of federal student loans. And as Justin Pope points out at CBS News, among for-profit institutions, “roughly 96 percent of graduates have loans and borrowing is substantially higher than at other types of institutions. Default rates recently jumped to 15 percent.”

Interestingly, Rubio co-sponsored bipartisan legislation that would force colleges to disclose information about “remedial enrollment, graduation rates and earnings potential.” Similar proposals from the Obama administration were strongly opposed by the industry.

So how about it, Sen. Rubio? Clarify that you are opposed to predatory for-profit colleges and universities, and that reforms are not meant to benefit them- or come clean about the hypocrisy of sending so much federal money to these institutions and aiding them with deregulation.

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