US Loosening of for-profit school rules triggers concern

06:26  23 march  2017
06:26  23 march  2017 Source:   usatoday.com

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  Loosening of for-profit school rules triggers concern © Provided by USA Today  Concerned that for-profit schools that don't deliver on promises may come roaring back under President Trump, advocates for students, teachers, and veterans urged Congress Wednesday to refrain from rolling back regulations enforcing the industry. 

Their letter, signed by 53 organizations, including Public Citizen and Consumer Federation of America, arrives amid concerns that Trump’s promise to cut down on what he considers cumbersome regulations could again empower some of the worst offenders in the for-profit education business.  

“We believe protections for students and taxpayers should be strengthened, not scaled back,” read the letter, which was also sent to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who's been a fierce proponent of for-profit charter secondary schools. “Veterans, low-income students and students of color have been disproportionately harmed by predatory colleges.” 

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Enrollment in for-profit schools has declined in recent months as regulators crack down on abusive and fraudulent lending and recruiting practices that have left students heavily in debt with little to no employment prospects. Students at for-profit colleges accounted for about one-third of defaults in the three-year period starting in 2013, according to the Department of Education. Several for-profit schools, including Corinthian Colleges and  ITT Technical Institute, have shut down after they were ordered to to pay hefty fines or prohibited from allowing new students to use federal loans to pay for their tuition. 

The student advocate groups that signed the letter were particularly alarmed two weeks ago when the Department of Education issued a directive delaying the implementation of the so-called gainful employment rule, says Jennifer Wang, director of the Washington, D.C. office of the Institute for College Access & Success, which signed and helped draft the letter. 

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Finalized by the Obama administration in 2014, the rule requires career education programs receiving federal funding at public, non-profit and for-profit colleges to provide information to students to help them assess the value of the education they would receive such as on-time graduation rates, percentage of students that land jobs in the chosen field, typical wages for graduates and debt amounts students can expect. 

The worst-performing programs cited by the Department of Education — those that consistently leave their graduates with more debt than they can repay – are required to show evidence of improvement or lose eligibility for federal funding. 

The group cited McCann School of Business and Technology in Hazelton, Penn. as an example of its concerns. The school charges $31,000 for tuition fees for its 70-week program to get an associates degree in medical assisting. Only 7% of enrolled students complete the program on time and less than half – 46% -- find a job, they said. The median annual earnings of people who complete the program is $20,000. But the typical graduate of this program in 2014-2015 had over $26,000 in student loan debt, the letter said. “This program has not passed standards established by the U.S. Department of Education,” according to McCann on its website. 

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McCann declined to comment through a public relations representative, saying it hadn’t read the letter.  

According to the coalition, other rules that could be targeted by the Department of Education or Congress include: 

*The borrower defense rule. Finalized in Oct. 2016, the rule lays out a process for providing loan relief to students who are victims of fraudulent schools. Relief measures include having loans discharged if their schools suddenly close and they don't enroll in another school within three years. 

The rule also prohibits schools from imposing mandatory arbitration clauses and class action bans, which force students to promise that they won’t sue the school in court if conflicts arise.

Because the rule is relatively new, the student advocates are concerned that the Republican-controlled Congress may look to kill it by using a relatively obscure legislative tactic called Congressional Review Act, Wang says. The act authorizes Congress to review and cancel regulations that were introduced by federal agencies in the last six months.  

*Commissioned sales. Using commissions to encourage for-profit school recruiters was largely banned 20 years ago. But the Department of Education closed some loopholes – “safe harbor” provisions -- in 2010, citing reports of ongoing aggressive recruiting practices that drive students to take out loans they couldn’t afford or enroll in programs where they likely couldn’t succeed. 

“To protect students and taxpayers, in 2015 the Education Department’s Inspector General called for greater oversight and enforcement of the ban on incentive compensation. We agree on the need for increased oversight and strongly oppose the creation of any loopholes in the statutory ban on incentive compensation,” the letter read.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Roger Yu on Twitter @ByRogerYu.

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