Durbin Blasts For-profit Colleges

Any suggestion that Senate Democrats might ease up on their efforts to crack down on for-profit colleges in the new Congress should be laid to rest at this point.

Last week, aides to Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) confirmed that his Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions would hold the next in its high-profile series of hearings on the higher education companies on February 17, though they declined to clarify conflicting reports on whether the hearing would address the use of veterans’ education benefits at for-profit colleges or other issues.

And Tuesday, another leading Democrat, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, told a group of independent college presidents that he and his colleagues were in a fight to ensure that "we don’t end up with another subprime mortgage fiasco" which leaves "low-income students mortgaging their futures not on overpriced homes this time, but on worthless diplomas — with taxpayers on the hook again for any losses."

In his sharply worded speech at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, showed no signs of backing away from the aggressive stance he took last summer in a critical letter about the use of military and veterans’ education benefits and at a forum he led on for-profit higher education in Chicago.

Durbin acknowledged that there are "many good for-profit schools and they serve a vital purpose," helping Americans move up the economic ladder. But "there are also a lot of bad for-profit schools" that leave students deeply in debt and without meaningful credentials, he said.

Some of his toughest words came when he went off script, recalling the story of a constituent who had testified at his Chicago forum about having accumulated nearly $90,000 in educational debt only to find that police forces and other potential employers declined to recognize the legitimacy of her degree from a for-profit institution.

Durbin said that not long after, he passed a campus of the institution in question, Westwood College, on his way to O’Hare Airport. "I thought, that’s the place that fleeced her out of this money," he said. "People must think this is a real college; in my mind it’s a travesty."

A Westwood spokeswoman, Kristina Yarrington, said via e-mail that the company had provided information to Durbin showing that the student in question had paid far less in tuition to the college than she claims to have accumulated in debt, that "we showed Durbin how career services worked with this student to help her find work and that many of our criminal justice graduates are working at Chicago-area and Illinois law enforcement agencies."

Durbin, knowing his audience, sought to tap into the anger among officials at many nonprofit institutions about the ever-increasing proportions of federal financial aid that are flowing to commercial colleges.

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