Students attending for-profit colleges are subject to subprime mortgage-like loans that saddle them with thousands of dollars in debt and waste millions in taxpayer dollars, Democratic lawmakers and education experts said at a Senate hearing Tuesday.
The hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee came just days after the Education Department issued new rules to deal with the student debt problem at career colleges, rules that those at the hearing said did not go far enough.
"I believe it is going to take more than these rules," committee chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said, to do something about what he described as the "toxic mix" of companies trying to maximize their profits and vulnerable people taking financial risks to improve themselves.
Republicans on the committee, who say Harkin has unfairly singled out the for-profit college industry in a series of hearings, boycotted the event. Industry representatives, who take strong issue with the hearings' findings, said they had not been invited to testify.
"I think this is really the second coming of the subprime crisis," Harkin said, citing figures that nearly a quarter of students at for-profit schools default on loans within three years and that students at such career schools account for 47 percent of all student loan defaults.
Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, also noted similarities to the housing meltdown, saying career schools are offering a panoply of financial support programs to people, often of lower incomes or minorities who are not educated in the consequences of defaulting. "It's the hijacking of the American dream. Offering promises that cannot possibly be met," he said.
Harkin also pointed out that large for-profits receive almost 90 percent of their revenues from federal taxpayer dollars, 23 percent of all federal student aid money. He said that in 2009, for-profit colleges received $18 billion in guaranteed student loans.
Meanwhile, 57 percent of students who enrolled in 2008-2009 departed without a diploma and with a high probability of debt. Students at for-profits make up about 10 percent of all college enrollment but account for almost 50 percent of all loan defaults.
The lawmakers heard from Eric Schmitt, who after obtaining a paralegal bachelor's degree at an Iowa career school found himself $45,000 in debt and without a job despite promises of a 100 percent placement rate in his field.
But Harris Miller, president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, an industry group, told The Associated Press that Harkin "has always exaggerated the size and dimension of the problem" and "only invited witnesses who are ideologically opposed to what we do."
He said the default rate at career colleges is no different from that of other institutions serving low income people and minorities and that graduation rates surpassed those of community colleges. He denied that career colleges were making money by pressuring students to take out high-interest loans. "We don't want to be in the lending business," he said. "We don't make money."
Harkin, addressing Education Department undersecretary Martha Kanter, said the new rules issued last week were "better than nothing," but noted that the stock prices of the companies owning the schools soared after the rules were announced.
Under the rules, schools will only be able to receive federal money if at least 35 percent of their former students are repaying their loans. Under the original plan, schools could have lost their federal loan eligibility immediately for not meeting criteria, but the final rule was softened to give schools multiple chances over a four-year period to improve their statistics.