Better bang for student-aid bucks
Published: Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, March 16, 2011 14:03
The following editorial appeared in the Miami Herald on Friday, March 11:
Throughout the country, for-profit, post-secondary schools represent a fast-growing sector of higher education. These institutions enroll more than 260,000 students across the state. They serve an important purpose, especially during an economic downturn when unemployment is high, by preparing students to enter the job market with new skills that connect with the local economy.
With the growth, however, have come a series of troubling questions. The loan default rates for federal student aid are significantly higher in Florida than the proportion of students in higher education. According to the U.S. Department of Education, for-profit schools around the country account for 26 percent of federal student aid, yet their students make up nearly half of all defaults. The median federal student loan debt for students earning associate degrees at for-profit institutions for 2007-08 was $14,000, almost double the median for students at non-profit colleges and universities.
These numbers are way out of balance.
Last year, the department proposed a series of new rules aimed at providing better accountability and ensuring that students don't wind up worse off by incurring heavy debt yet ending up with a dead-end job, or none all.
The so-called gainful employment rule would measure the ratio between student debt and income after completion of the program. A second provision would measure the rate at which students make timely repayment of their loans. According to DOE figures, only 55 percent of borrowers attending for-profits were able to pay off more than accrued interest in one recent school year.
The rules would penalize schools whose former students cannot pay down the principal on their federal loans, as well as those whose students have a high debt-to-earnings ratio. The proposed figures are well within reach for schools that are serving their students properly and also ensuring that these taxpayer-backed loans are adequately protected.
A fully eligible program, for example, would require at least 45 percent of former students _ still less than half _ to be paying down the principal on their federal loans, or ensure reasonable debt-to-earnings ratios for graduates. At present, no such restrictions are in place. Last year, the General Accountability Office investigators found a series of abuses, including the use of misleading costs, exaggerated earnings prospects and high-pressure tactics by recruiters to entice students to enroll.
Congress should support these rules. Unfortunately, a "rider" attached to a spending bill under debate in the Senate but already passed in the House would keep the rules in limbo. Supporters of delay say going forward would deny hundreds of thousands of students access to the skills training and development they need to secure a job in today's gloomy economy.
We're all for more access and sensible rules that take the economic environment into account. It is unrealistic to expect jobs to materialize immediately when unemployment stands at more than 13 percent. Federal regulators can't ignore these facts, and the rules should reflect that economic reality.
But blocking the rules is inconsistent with the goal of helping students. If all that debt-laden training doesn't pay off and abusive practices are allowed to flourish, what's the point?
Government should assist young people trying to stay out of unemployment lines. Gainful employment rules, properly designed, would actually help students lead productive lives, find good jobs and support their families. That's the ultimate goal.