Devos fails stu­dents

Dereg­u­la­tion helps for-profit col­leges, not en­rollees, says Vivé Grif­fith

The Dallas Morning News - - Viewpoints - Vivé Grif­fith is a writer, com­mu­nity ed­u­ca­tor and former di­rec­tor of Free Minds in Austin. Twit­ter: @vive­g­rif­fith

Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren and Rep. Kather­ine Clark just re­leased the Devos Watch, sum­ma­riz­ing the sec­re­tary of ed­u­ca­tion’s first year in of­fice as rid­dled with con­flicts of in­ter­est and ques­tionable ethics.

Mas­sachusetts’ mem­bers of Congress aren’t the only ones keep­ing a close eye on Betsy Devos. Those of us who work with low-in­come stu­dents have wit­nessed with dis­may as she has qui­etly dis­man­tled pro­tec­tions that keep peo­ple from be­ing taken ad­van­tage of by for-profit col­leges.

In­stead of safe­guard­ing poli­cies to hold schools ac­count­able to stu­dents, we are en­ter­ing a new Wild West of higher ed­u­ca­tion. Snake-oil pur­vey­ors can line up at the door, as com­mon­sense prac­tices like re­quir­ing schools to dis­close the me­dian in­come data of grad­u­ates fall away. For-profit schools are the big win­ners. The big losers are stu­dents, who seek bet­ter fu­tures through the prom­ise of higher ed­u­ca­tion, and tax­pay­ers, who fund some­times more than 90 per­cent of these op­er­a­tions pos­ing as schools.

I’ve spent the past decade teach­ing the types of stu­dents tar­geted by for-profit col­leges. The adults I’ve taught in Free Minds, a cost-free pro­gram in Austin af­fil­i­ated with the Cle­mente Course in the Hu­man­i­ties, show up ready for a sec­ond chance in ed­u­ca­tion. They live on low in­comes, work mul­ti­ple jobs and have faced bar­ri­ers to the class­room that range from home­less­ness to rais­ing chil­dren alone. Yet they ar­rive ea­ger to learn, bol­stered by the be­lief that a col­lege de­gree is the path to a bet­ter fu­ture. For-profit col­leges trade on just this be­lief. For Shalindi Rochester, it was the claim of a 70 per­cent job-place­ment rate that drew her to take classes at Sul­li­van and Cogliano, a for-profit school. When she ac­com­pa­nied her mother to an in­for­ma­tion ses­sion, Rochester had no in­ten­tion of en­rolling. But af­ter fill­ing out a ba­sic form, she got a call the fol­low­ing week say­ing she was ac­cepted and ap­proved for fi­nan­cial aid to cover the full cost of classes in med­i­cal cod­ing. She’d been work­ing re­tail for years and saw this is a chance to make a change.

“When you hear the ‘med­i­cal field,’ you think job se­cu­rity, as op­posed to the high turnover of re­tail,” Rochester said. “I thought this has to be more sta­ble.”

Rochester com­pleted her cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and dis­cov­ered the only jobs the school was plac­ing stu­dents in were cashier po­si­tions at fast-food restau­rants. And when she tried to get a job on her own, her med­i­cal cod­ing cer­tifi­cate was worth­less. It wasn’t ac­cepted as valid by a sin­gle em­ployer. Yet she now owed $13,000 in loans, while con­tin­u­ing to earn the $9 an hour she earned be­fore she went to school.

Sul­li­van and Cogliano would go on to pay $425,000 to former stu­dents af­ter be­ing sued by the state of Mas­sachusetts for mis­lead­ing stu­dents and mis­rep­re­sent­ing place­ment rates. But Rochester wouldn’t re­ceive any of that money, and nearly a decade later, she doles out 20 per­cent of her net in­come in loan re­pay­ment for a cer­tifi­cate she says has never helped her in any way.

In my work with adult stu­dents, these sto­ries are ram­pant and heart­break­ing. Peo­ple shoul­der heavy debt for schools that didn’t keep their prom­ises. Or they can’t en­roll in classes be­cause a for-profit school is hold­ing their tran­scripts over vague fi­nan­cial charges. Or they com­plete a pro­gram, then find none of their cred­its will trans­fer to a pub­lic col­lege.

It’s dam­ag­ing on the in­di­vid­ual level, but there are big­ger con­cerns as well. By tar­get­ing vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties and stu­dents, these schools un­der­mine the per­ceived value of higher ed­u­ca­tion among those whose lives can truly be trans­formed by earn­ing a de­gree. If they can’t trust one col­lege, how do they know they can trust another?

Mary White Roe­buck, a mother of three in Dorch­ester, Mass., saw her son, an ex­cel­lent stu­dent who had al­ways dreamed of be­ing an au­to­mo­tive en­gi­neer, quit school at for-profit Uni­ver­sal Tech­ni­cal In­sti­tute af­ter two semesters. Schol­ar­ship re­cruiters had come to his high school promis­ing a full ride at UTI, but the funds quickly evap­o­rated af­ter en­roll­ment. Roe­buck is left with a $5,000 bill and a be­lief her son was set up to fail.

“It’s ter­ri­ble when you see your child so ex­cited about be­ing ed­u­cated and pre­par­ing him­self for the fu­ture, then you watch an in­sti­tu­tion break your child down,” Roe­buck said. “I’ve heard a lot of these sto­ries in my com­mu­nity.”

Her son is now be­ing trained on-site at a lo­cal BMW deal­er­ship and has set aside dreams of col­lege.

To be sure, some for-profit schools fill an im­por­tant gap for in­di­vid­u­als who want job-based train­ing un­avail­able at lo­cal com­mu­nity col­leges. But too many take ad­van­tage of stu­dents while of­fer­ing abysmal grad­u­a­tion rates or cer­tifi­cates that are mean­ing­less in the job mar­ket. And any in­dus­try that op­er­ates al­most en­tirely on fed­eral dol­lars must be sub­ject to scru­tiny.

“I be­lieve in ac­count­abil­ity,” Devos told the Se­nate dur­ing her con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing. But with the for-profit col­lege in­dus­try, the op­po­site has proved true. Weak­en­ing reg­u­la­tions can be spun as curb­ing “over­reach.” But those of us who work with stu­dents know it re­ally just holds the door open for more bad ac­tors to ex­ploit vul­ner­a­ble stu­dents and the tax­pay­ers left foot­ing the bill.

File Photo/the As­so­ci­ated Press

Sec­re­tary of Ed­u­ca­tion Betsy Devos has dis­man­tled pro­tec­tions to keep stu­dents from be­ing de­frauded at for-profit col­leges, whose op­er­a­tions rely in large part on fed­eral dol­lars.

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