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Higher Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Higher Education Initiative

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Putting an End to the Subprime Student Loan Racket

Published:  October 29, 2009

[Editor's Note: Yesterday we ran an excerpt from an article that Higher Ed Watch Editor Stephen Burd wrote for The Washington Monthly [cover pictured right] on the subprime student loan crisis at some of the nation's largest chains of for-profit colleges. Today, we're running a second excerpt that provides recommendations for putting an end to predatory lending at these institutions. To read the full article, click here.)

For a while it looked like the meltdown on Wall Street, and the ensuing credit crunch, would put an end to predatory lending at for-profit schools. In 2008 Sallie Mae quit offering subprime private loans to students at for-profit colleges because the astronomical default rates had helped throw its stock price into a nosedive. But the proprietary college industry has found a way around this roadblock, namely making private loans directly to students, much the way used-car lots loan money to buyers rather than going through a third party. For example, in a recent earnings call with investors and analysts, Corinthian said that it plans to dole out roughly $130 million in "institutional loans" this year, while Career Education and ITT Educational Services Inc., another for-profit chain, have reported that they expect to lend a combined total of $125 million.

These loans could prove to be even more toxic than the private ones offered by Sallie Mae. This is because some schools are packaging them as ordinary consumer credit, which has even fewer built-in safeguards than private student loans, especially when it comes to disclosure requirements. This makes it easier for schools to mislead borrowers about the terms of the debt they are taking on. In one class-action lawsuit filed earlier this year, former students of Colorado-based Westwood Colleges allege they were duped into borrowing institutional loans at a staggering 18 percent interest. According to the complaint, the college's corporate bosses advise their admissions officers to sign students up for these loans without revealing how costly they are going to be. Thus borrowers don't learn about the steep interest until after they leave school and receive their first loan bill. Worse, the lawsuit alleges that some students have been signed up for loans without their permission.

Jillian L. Estes, a Florida lawyer who represents the plaintiffs in the case, says she has been approached by two dozen former Westwood admissions representatives who admit that they deliberately avoided telling students about the terms of these loans. "They knew they'd never be able to enroll these students if they were up front with them," Estes explains. (In their written response to the lawsuit, Westwood College officials offered a "categorical rejection" of the allegations brought by Estes and her clients.)

Significantly, many proprietary schools are pushing institutional loans even when they know students won't be able to pay them off; Career Education and Corinthian Colleges only expect to recover roughly half of the money they distribute through their institutional lending programs, according to communications with shareholders. Why would they lend knowing they won't get the money back? Because any loss is more than offset by federal loans and financial aid dollars, which, despite the surge in private educational lending, still fund the bulk of tuition at proprietary schools. Say a student gets a $60,000 federal financial aid package and supplements it with a $20,000 institutional loan. The school comes out $40,000 ahead even if the borrower ultimately defaults. Plus, getting students in the door pumps up enrollment numbers, which makes for happy shareholders.

As the credit crunch eases, traditional lenders may well go back to making private loans to proprietary school students, especially given the changes afoot in the industry. President Obama aims to get rid of the program that allows lending companies to collect lucrative fees and interest for serving as the middleman on federal student loans and instead have the government offer the loans directly. Once forced out of the federal student loan program, traditional lenders will have a powerful incentive to seek profits by wading deeper into the private student loan market, and for-profit schools, with their exponential growth, could once again be an appealing target

The good news is that the Obama administration seems more inclined than its predecessor to stand up against the abuses of proprietary schools. In May, the Department of Education revealed that it was considering reversing changes the Bush administration made to weaken the law that prohibits colleges from compensating recruiters based on the number of students they enroll. It is also thinking about adding teeth to the rules requiring proprietary colleges to show that graduates are finding "gainful employment" in their field and cracking down on schools that willfully mislead prospective students. "Our overall goal at the Department of Education in post-secondary education is to make sure that students ... have the information they need to make good choices," Robert Shireman, the deputy undersecretary of education, told financial analysts and investors during a conference call earlier this year.

These proposals are a good start, but more steps will be needed. For starters, the Department of Education should publish the data that it already collects on the number of students at each school who default over the lifetime of their loans. At the moment, it only releases the number who default during the first two years after leaving college, which is of limited value, not only because this is such a short time span, but also because the rates can be easily manipulated by schools.

Just publishing lifetime default rates would give prospective students a clearer picture of the risks of enrolling in a particular school. But the impact would be far greater if Congress used this data, along with graduation rates, to weed out abusive institutions; ideally, any school that failed to meet a certain threshold should be kicked out of the federal financial aid programs.

At the same time, Congress should require companies that offer private student loans to give the same kinds of flexible repayment options and consumer protections as are available through the federal student loan program, including allowing borrowers to repay their loans as a percentage of their income. Lawmakers also need to revisit changes Congress made to the bankruptcy code in 2005, which make it exceedingly difficult for financially distressed borrowers, including those with private student loans, to discharge their debt in bankruptcy.

These changes would go a long way toward helping victims escape their mountains of debt and ensuring that future students don't wind up in the same situation. It would also guarantee that taxpayers don't go on bankrolling giant companies that profit by exploiting those who are struggling to build better lives.

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