Commentary: Dick Durbin: Proposed Biden rules would protect students from debt, improve college programs
Published in Op Eds
As a first-generation college student, Victoria Vences enrolled in the criminal justice program at Westwood College in 2007 believing it would help her land a job as a probation officer or with the immigration service. After three years of juggling a full-time job while being a full-time student, Victoria started applying for law enforcement jobs, showing potential employers her certificate from Westwood.
They told her that, unfortunately, the certificate was essentially worthless. By the time she recognized her situation, Victoria had taken out $50,000 in student loans.
Not wanting to take on more debt for a worthless degree, she dropped out. She found meaningful work with the Illinois Domestic Violence hotline, but continued to struggle to cover her bills, including student loan payments. Victoria was one of thousands of students who suffered because of Westwood’s lies.
Victoria’s story is a familiar one to thousands of student loan borrowers across Illinois and millions more across the country. It shows the need for stronger protections for students who are targeted for these low-quality — and even predatory — high-debt postsecondary programs.
The good news is that the President Joe Biden’s administration is moving to do just that. Earlier this month, the administration released a set of proposed regulations designed to ensure colleges preparing students for careers won’t leave them under an onerous amount of debt that they have little possibility of repaying.
One of those rules, known as gainful employment, would restore a protection rescinded by the administration of former President Donald Trump in 2019. The principle behind the gainful employment rule is simple: Students should not be left worse off financially for having pursued higher education.
Under the Biden administration’s proposed rule, colleges would have to prove that their programs adequately prepare graduates for work in a recognized career field — such as medical assistants and heating and air conditioning technicians — without student debt payments taking up a burdensome share of their monthly incomes. The rule would also set the expectation that those who complete a program earn more than the median worker in their state who holds a high school diploma.
If a program can’t clear these thresholds over time, it will lose eligibility for federal student aid. And the college would have to show improvements to the program to regain access to federal funding. The rule protects students like Victoria, and it protects taxpayers across the nation, too.
These expectations should be seen as a floor, not a ceiling. But that won’t stop industry lobbyists from for-profit colleges — a sector notorious for predatory recruiting, misrepresentation, fraud and poor student outcomes — from crying foul and claiming they are being targeted unfairly.
Unfortunately, policymakers know what happens when we loosen the rules for colleges focused on boosting the profits of their owners and investors, rather than supporting students. Bad actors find ways to exploit loopholes, push vulnerable students into low-quality programs and leave students drowning in debt they can’t repay.
For-profit colleges will claim they provide access to post-high school training for marginalized student populations. But research has shown that for-profits target Black and Latino communities through a phenomenon of reverse redlining that exacerbates racial income inequality.
For-profit colleges will claim they provide needed flexibility for student veterans. But for years, until a bipartisan measure from Congress closed an obscure legal loophole, for-profits targeted veterans’ education benefits to pad their revenues, viewing veterans as little more than dollar signs in uniform.
Students who went to for-profit colleges fare worse in the labor market than if they’d never gone to college at all, even though the credentials they offer tend to be 30% to 40% more expensive than the same credentials from a public institution.
Now is not the time to weaken student and taxpayer protections. As the experiences of Victoria and so many other student borrowers show, too many bad actors will continue to take advantage of loose regulations and fleece students and federal taxpayers.
The gainful employment rule and other accountability measures from the administration will help improve college program quality across the board, save taxpayer dollars from waste and abuse and put bad actors on notice.
We need to make stories like Victoria’s less common, and my colleagues in Congress should back the Biden administration’s efforts to make the gainful employment rule as strong as it can be.
(U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin is a Democrat from Illinois.
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