by David Halperin, published April 21, 2015
Parroting a familiar talking point by bad actors in the for-profit college industry, Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), appeared last week to blame students for their high student loan burdens. After questioning Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Thursday about regulations aimed at for-profit colleges, Blunt, a member of the Senate GOP leadership, said [VIDEO at 1:38:00]:
We ought to be talking about … the debt problem when you get out of school. How much of that related to the actual cost of going to school and how much it related to what you thought your living standards should be while you went to school, and I’m pretty confident over the years that the student expectations for their personal living standards in school have often increased where they would have been a few just years ago.
Exclusive video obtained in 2012 by Republic Report of a meeting of the for-profit college trade association APSCU showed an industry executive engaged in similar blaming of students for alleged overborrowing — to buy cars, cover child support, and pay parking tickets — a remark that led to thunderous applause by fellow executives in attendance.
Similarly, when in 2013 I asked a spokesperson at for-profit giant EDMC about a veteran who had incurred tens of thousands in debt at EDMC before dropping out, he said:
Current laws and regulations permit students to borrow more than the cost of tuition and fees up to the maximum loan limits set by Congress. While we cannot limit the amount of debt a student incurs, we strive to provide access to resources that encourage responsible borrowing and repayment of loans.
The predatory for-profit college companies tend to accept no responsibility for their sky-high prices, deceptive enrollment and financial aid tactics, and poor quality programs and job placement records that push so many students deep into debt. They blame their own students instead, implying that the students are pocketing the money themselves to buy Escalades and Cristal.
I have been told by staff members at EDMC and elsewhere that there are in fact some students who do enroll in order to pocket some cash and walk away, but these staff say that the management at these schools recognize the problem and don‘t care, because the school gets its federal aid dollars anyway. Indeed, industry insiders say that some for-profit college recruiters actually dangle the idea of extra spending money as a way to entice wavering students into enrolling — get a new laptop, get some cash. No doubt some students at non-profit and public colleges also borrow extra to cover some personal expenses. But the vast majority of for-profit college students are not keeping any cash – they are turning over their federal checks to the school, borrowing more money in private loans, and often going broke in the process. And in fact colleges already have tools at their disposal to limit student borrowing to what the student actually needs.
In an odd follow-up to his line of questioning, Senator Blunt then asked Duncan to “provide a year-to-year summary of marketing and advertising expenses for the Department over the last three fiscal years, as this relates to a topic I’ve been interested in, whether we should specifically identify that this is a taxpayer funded marketing effort.” Duncan replied, “We don’t do a heck of a lot of it” but promised the data. Blunt didn’t explain what he was getting at. I’m not aware of what the Department of Education might be “marketing” or of “advertising” run amok. But I am aware that Blunt’s fellow Senators, notably Dick Durbin (D-IL), have long argued that for-profit colleges should not be permitted to use taxpayer dollars for marketing, after a Senate committee report found that big for-profit colleges were getting as much as 90 percent of their revenue from federal funds and spending almost a quarter of their revenue on marketing.
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