Predatory Colleges, Freed to Fleece Students

By:  The Editorial Board

Try as they might, the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress cannot disguise that they continue to do the bidding of the for-profit college industry, which has saddled working-class students — including veterans — with crushing debt while providing useless degrees, or no degrees at all.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos claimed ignorance when she was asked during a congressional hearing on Tuesday how many of the college students who told her department that they had been ripped off were complaining about for-profit schools. The widely publicized answer is more than 98 percent.

For-profit college fraud dates back to the inception of the G.I. Bill during World War II. A congressional investigation during the 1950s found that schools had cropped up to fleece veterans, siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars while providing worthless training. Since then, Congress has intermittently tightened regulations, only to loosen them under industry pressure, leading to a cycle of exploitation.

The problem became so pervasive that 37 state attorneys general joined forces to combat it. Attorneys general are not only suing abusive for-profit schools, they are suing the federal government, resisting efforts to weaken or ignore regulations that protect students from predatory institutions.

The federal government was shamefully late to this effort but finally found its footing after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau opened its doors in 2011. In 2014, the bureau sued Corinthian Colleges, which soon collapsed amid charges that it had lured poor and working-class students by lying to them about job-placement rates — then saddled them with predatory loans.

Congress was forced to confront the problem last year when it passed the Forever G.I. Bill, which restored veterans benefits to thousands of men and women who had found themselves shut out of school when for-profit programs charged with fraud closed their doors.

Ms. DeVos seems to have learned nothing from this history. Indeed, as The Times reported last week, the Education Department has undermined investigations of the industry by marginalizing or reassigning lawyers and investigators who had been assigned to this matter during the Obama years. Major investigations had been abandoned, including those of the DeVry Education Group (now known as Adtalem Global Education),Bridgepoint Education and Career Education Corporation.

The House would further weaken fraud protection in a bill to overhaul the Higher Education Act. That effort would do away with rules that deny federal aid to career education programs that have historically burdened students with loans far beyond their capacity to pay. It would make short-term or untested programs eligible for federal aid for which they do not now qualify.

The bill would also blur the distinction between for-profit and other colleges, allowing for-profit career training programs to escape regulatory scrutiny that is now required under federal statute and regulation. This bill, in other words, is a love letter to the for-profit industry the likes of which the country has never seen.

With the midterm elections fast approaching, Ms. DeVos’s enabling of for-profit colleges is putting even some Republicans on edge. This romance with financial predators will be hard to defend for Republicans facing re-election. It should be.