Much of the attention about student debt during last year’s presidential campaigns revolved around competing Democratic plans to write off a large chunk of it, the cost of which could be as high as $1 trillion.
Even as Congress debates this issue, some debt forgiveness does not require new legislative action. Last week, the Biden administration announced that it plans to fully forgive about $1 billion in loans given to some 72,000 borrowers who were ripped off by for-profit schools.
The abuses of many of these for-profit schools are well-documented. With glitzy advertising campaigns often directed at less sophisticated students, the schools pump up their abilities to teach marketable skills that will supposedly land their graduates high-paying jobs.
But usually the training, most of it done online, is mediocre at best and the jobs don’t materialize, leaving the graduates of these schools with a large amount of debt that they can’t repay. According to a report from the Brookings Institution earlier this year, for-profit colleges account for 71% of student-loan defaults while enrolling just 10% of students.
Since some of these for-profit predators have gone out of business, students are left with no option to get their money back than to hope the government will write off part or all of the loans in cases where students can show they were defrauded.
The Biden administration has officially signaled it plans to be more lenient in this regard than the Trump administration was. But it should also be tougher in cracking down on these for-profit schools.
Following the Great Recession, for-profit colleges went through a decade-long decline in enrollment, but that has started to reverse itself, thanks to the Trump administration’s more lax attitude toward them. Among the regulations repealed by Trump’s Department of Education was the Obama era “gainful employment rule,” which stipulated that institutions could be disqualified from federal financial aid if a significant share of their graduates don’t earn enough to pay off the debt they accrue attending these schools.
Trump’s gentler approach to for-profit schools may be explained as much by his own circumspect background as his anti-regulatory inclinations. The former president was at one time the principal owner of such a questionable educational institution, Trump University, that hooked the gullible on the belief that they could learn in a few courses how to get rich.
Reinstating the “gainful employment rule” and other related regulations are probably not enough, however. A better solution would be to cut off for-profit schools completely from federally backed student loans. That would put most of them — and for certain all of the shady ones — out of business.
There are plenty of public and nonprofit institutions that can provide a better education at a lower cost to those who need to upgrade their skills to compete in the current job market. The Brookings Institution report says, for example, the average tuition at a public community college is at least $10,000 less than at a for-profit college.
In the meantime, students and their families need to take some responsibility for investigating the schools for which they are borrowing to attend. The students should not assume that if the degree or certification they get is worthless, they won’t have to pay back the money.
“Caveat emptor.” That Latin expression — translated as “Let the buyer beware” — stipulates that the buyer has a responsibility to check out the merchandise or service he is buying before making the purchase. That’s good advice not just for houses and automobiles but for academic and job-training programs, too.