Follow Defense Department lead to crack down on for-profit colleges

President Barack Obama is making a push to reduce student debt, in part by cracking down on unscrupulous for-profit colleges.
President Barack Obama is making a push to reduce student debt, in part by cracking down on unscrupulous for-profit colleges. The Associated Press

The U.S. Department of Defense took a strong stand against the abusive for-profit college industry when it recently suspended one of its largest players from recruiting on military bases and accessing federal dollars available to service members for educational expenses.

If only the rest of the federal government, Congress included, would be as assertive.

The move against the University of Phoenix — which specializes in online courses but has locations around the country, including two in the Kansas City area — came after multiple allegations about the school’s recruiting tactics.

The nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting documented earlier this year how the school paid five large military bases nearly $1 million over five years to sponsor recruiting events, possibly in violation of an executive order written to stop for-profit colleges from gaining preferential access to service members.

The ban on funding applies to Defense Department tuition assistance for students newly enrolling or transferring into University of Phoenix programs. Currently enrolled service personnel can continue to receive assistance, and the decision does not affect GI Bill benefits for military veterans.

Enrollment at for-profit colleges has dropped as the economy has improved and word of the schools’ tactics has gotten around. But they continue using questionable methods to lure thousands of students, many of them low-income, with promises of high-paying jobs and bright futures that rarely pan out.

And the government keeps subsidizing them.

About 12 percent of America’s college students attend for-profit schools, ranging from dubious online universities to trade schools such as culinary academies. They account for nearly half of all student loan defaults.

President Barack Obama’s administration has moved to crack down on the sector, especially with a recent “gainful employment” order restricting federal aid to schools whose graduates’ debt exceeds designated income thresholds.

But the for-profit college industry is notoriously adept at finding ways to evade laws and federal regulations. The aggressive recruiting of service members and veterans came about as a way to evade a rule that caps the amount of a school’s revenue from federal student aid at 90 percent. The colleges quickly figured out how to make up the difference with military and veterans’ benefits.

Now some of the schools are converting to nonprofit status while acting like for-profit enterprises to escape the gainful employment rule.

The hard-lobbying industry has enough friends in Congress to make substantive reforms a tough endeavor. And while Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, worked to crack down on the abuses, the Department of Education bureaucracy has pushed back to protect the status quo.

By cutting off the money spigot, the Defense Department took the right move to protect service members. All Americans deserve safeguards against unscrupulous for-profit colleges whose primary purpose is to make money and leave students in deep debt.