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New Senate Bill Seeks to Crack Down on One of For-Profit Colleges’ Worst Abuses

Published:  August 7, 2012

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and two other Senate Democrats introduced legislation last week to stop one of the most egregious practices of the for-profit higher education industry: enrolling students in programs that lack the specialized accreditation needed for students to get jobs in their fields of study.

The important bill would strip federal financial aid, as well as veteran and military benefits, from any college programs that leave students in the lurch because they don’t have the necessary programmatic accreditation. “Taxpayers have no place funding programs that hurt students more than they help,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who joined Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski and Harkin in sponsoring the measure.

The legislation, the “Protecting Students from Worthless Degrees Act,” comes on the heels of the release of a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee report detailing the findings from a two-year investigation that Senator Harkin, the panel’s chairman, led of the for-profit higher education industry. During the course of the inquiry, committee staff learned of a number of students who felt they had been deceived about the value of their degrees.

For example, the Senate committee heard testimony from Yasmine Issa, a single mother of twins who completed a training program in ultrasound technology at Career Education Corporation’s Sanford-Brown University in 2008 only to discover from potential employers that the program had not been accredited. While recruiters emphasized the school’s accreditation to her, they apparently neglected to mention that the ultrasound program lacked the necessary imprimatur of the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. As a result, Issa, who paid $32,000 for the program ($15,000 of which came from federal student loans), wasn’t eligible to sit for the licensing exam or to find work as a sonographer.

The committee also examined complaints from students at Bridgepoint Education’s Ashford University who learned that their online education degree didn’t qualify them to teach in their home states; and from students at Kaplan Higher Education’s online Corcord Law School who were shocked to discover that they could not take the bar in 49 states (other than California), since the school was not accredited by the American Bar Association.

Meanwhile, in February, Kaplan College in Charlotte, NC voluntarily shut down its dental assistant program after the state’s attorney general began investigating allegations that the school deceived students into believing that the program was on the verge of being accredited by the American Dental Association. This would have been impossible, since the school apparently did not even have an application pending with the accreditor. While Kaplan officials said the whole thing was a “misunderstanding,” they agreed to refund over $1 million to the program’s students and recent graduates.

The Senate committee found that some for-profit college companies try to give themselves cover by “disclosing” the lack of programmatic accreditation “deep in their Web sites or in the fine print within pages of enrollment agreements, while framing the disclosure in terms that prevent students from recognizing the gravity of this issue.” Because students at these schools are generally rushed through the enrollment process, they are unlikely to ever see these disclosures.

The report found, for instance, that while Sanford-Brown includes a disclosure on its Web site indicating that some of the health professional programs on its campuses are not accredited, the school includes other statements on the site that play down the importance of accreditation. For example, prospective students who click on the description of the unaccredited veterinary technology program that Sanford-Brown’s Portland, OR campus offers are told that “graduates who have diligently attended class and their clinical, studied, and practiced their skills should have the skills to seek entry-level employment as veterinary technicians.” What’s left unsaid, according to the report, is that students who enroll in this program at the Portland campus are likely to be left stranded because Oregon, like many other states, only allows graduates of accredited programs to take the licensing exam to become certified veterinary technicians.

In theory, the “Protecting Students from Worthless Degrees Act” is not needed. That’s because the Department of Education put into effect last year regulations that aim to crack down on colleges that mislead students about their academic programs. Under the rules, schools that deceive students into signing up for programs that lack the specialized accreditation needed to get jobs could face severe penalties, including being barred from participating in the federal student aid programs.

But the Education Department doesn’t appear to be too eager to enforce these rules. This may be, in part, because it’s difficult to prove that schools have deliberately misled students. It’s much easier to simply bar for-profit colleges from enrolling students into unaccredited programs, as this bill would do.

Given the political divide on these issues and the outsized power of the for-profit college lobby, this common-sense bill will probably not move anytime fast. That's a shame because it's difficult to see how anyone in good conscience could oppose legislation that prevents the fleecing of students and taxpayers for degrees that aren’t worth the paper on which they’re printed.

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