February 23, 2007
The Democratic leadership in Congress plans to make college affordability a central theme of this legislative session. The pending bills that would increase federal aid to low-income students and lower the costs of student loans are good, as far as they go. But Congress must do more to ensure that scarce federal aid dollars are legitimately spent and not gobbled up by for-profit diploma mills that bilk the government and students alike.
Legitimate, well-run commercial colleges provide a crucial service for poorly prepared students who do not qualify for admission to traditional colleges. But not all schools are up to the job. Some rake in state and federal aid by recruiting marginally literate students who have no hope of ever graduating. Students who exhaust their aid find themselves burdened with debt and no closer to the degrees or the better lives they had hoped for.
The full scope of the problem is not yet known. But Congress got a glimpse of it two years ago, when the Office of the Inspector General at the United States Education Department reported that nearly three-quarters of its investigations had focused on problems at profit-making schools.
These problems have been especially evident in the state of New York, which has the most generous need-based student aid program in the nation. Faced with documented cases of student exploitation, the State Board of Regents declared a temporary moratorium last year on the opening of any more for-profit colleges, then beefed up the regulations governing their operation.
The Regents have closed down one commercial college and sanctioned three others, which could be closed if they do not meet performance targets. They are now scrutinizing the University of Phoenix, the for-profit giant that has been trying for years to enter the lucrative New York market. At issue are questions about academic quality, graduation rates and a pending federal lawsuit that charges the university with fraudulently obtaining hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.
New York’s Board of Regents is right to keep a close eye on these schools. And as Congress prepares to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, it needs to take a harder look at for-profit colleges to make sure that students and the government are getting what they pay for.