Blog: Semantics At The Heart Of Latest Attack On For-Profits

By Kevin Kuzma, Editor

The title sounds noble: the Students First Act.

In those four words, you will find something you can stand behind – a cause we can all champion: protecting students from colleges and universities preying on the unsuspecting through flashy marketing pieces and aggressive phone calling. (Actually, make it two things we can stand behind: protecting students … and our dislike of intrusive marketers.)

Last week, U.S. Senators Tom Harkin (D-Ia.), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced the “Students First Act” to strengthen the Department of Education’s oversight of higher education institutions that are taking advantage of students and taxpayers.

But pay no mind to the language they are using, specifically the broad claim that the act targets institutions of higher education. Harkin, in his final term before retirement, is dedicating a large portion of his time to for-profit bashing. The Students First Act is easily the biggest threat to all career schools since the advent of the Department’s “gainful employment” rule in 2010.

Specifically, the bill enhances the program review process, creating triggers that require the Department to conduct program reviews of institutions most at risk of violating federal law. It also strengthens existing sanctions against colleges that knowingly and willfully violate requirements of federal student aid programs and holds executives of those institutions personally accountable.

Follow along with me, if you will, and read between the lines of the language used in the HELP Committee’s press release announcing the proposed legislation.

The language claims the act will help the DOE act against schools taking advantage of low- and middle-income students who rely upon federal student aid to help make college affordable. “Bad actors” are specifically made targets and are defined as institutions that “are aggressively marketing to vulnerable students in potentially illegal ways while often providing little or no meaningful education, misusing taxpayer dollars, and sticking students with the bill.” The paragraph concludes with this statement: “A rising number of students at these institutions are being forced to drop out and default on their federal student loans.”

The "bad actors" label is cause for concern for all career colleges. And the last statement referring to “these institutions” perhaps should cause even greater anxiety. Why? Because Senator Harkin considers all for-profit schools bad actors. By his vague definition, all career colleges are overly aggressive in their marketing efforts, are not graduating students at high enough rates, and are essentially flawed institutions because of what he sees as their motives.

The Students First Act is nothing more than Senator Harkin upping the ante against for-profit colleges by granting the Department of Education an expansion of power.

While we all agree students should come first – no matter what sector of higher education we might work in – we need to fight against this act before the DOE uses its power to unfairly target career colleges where students are getting quality educations, which happens to be the overwhelming majority of for-profit schools.

Something else we can all agree on: Lawmakers and their proposed solutions are not the answer for the betterment of higher education. Their threats create dissention, put the various sectors of higher education at odds, and carelessly cause trouble for institutions that have done nothing wrong.

Students should definitely come first, but with this legislation, lawmakers do.


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