Imagine working for months or years toward a college degree — investing hours in late-night study sessions and tens of thousands of dollars in loans, all in the hopes that your diploma will open new doors and improve your job prospects. Now imagine that just weeks before you were scheduled to graduate, your school lost its accreditation. Your diploma could be worthless.
That’s exactly what happened to students at Cincinnati’s Antonelli College, which just had its nursing program suspended — leaving students, who paid almost $26,000 for their degree, in limbo just weeks before graduation. The school failed to warn students that it was in danger of losing accreditation, and students may not be allowed to take Ohio board certification tests to become licensed nurses, despite all of the work and money they invested.
This is unacceptable. And unfortunately, the Antonelli students are far from alone.
For too long, bad actors in the for-profit college sector have been allowed to prey on students, leaving them unable to secure the good-paying jobs they were promised, and trapped under a mountain of debt that they will never be able to pay off.
For-profit colleges represent just 12 percent of all higher education students, but they account for nearly 50 percent of all student loan defaults. More than 30 state Attorneys General, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Department of Justice are all investigating for-profit colleges for deceptive and misleading behavior. And a loophole in federal law has allowed for-profit education companies to take advantage of men and women in uniform with misleading marketing and recruitment pitches.
These bad actors aren’t just defrauding students — they are ripping off American taxpayers. Almost all their revenue comes from the federal government. It’s far past time for Congress to act.
Last year, I introduced the Students Before Profits Act, which would hold for-profit schools and their executives accountable for misleading students. I also introduced the Protecting Financial Aid for Students and Taxpayers Act, which would prohibit the use of federal funds for advertising, marketing, and recruitment because federal funds should be used for educating students, not for producing glossy brochures or television ads.
But students like those at Antonelli College can’t afford to wait for new laws to be passed and take effect. There are steps the U.S. Department of Education can and should take today to crack down on these shady schools.
This week, I called on the Department of Education to investigate Antonelli College, and see what relief is available to its nursing students in Cincinnati. I have also urged the Department to ban the practice known as “forced arbitration,” which prevents students from having their day in court. The Department of Education has proposed a rule banning the practice, and I will continue pushing them to follow through.
The Department is also working on rules that would provide debt relief to students who have been misled or defrauded by their colleges. This is a good step. But rules are only as strong as their enforcement.
We shouldn’t punish students who attended these schools because Congress has failed to do its job and police these institutions, but taxpayers should not be on the hook either. That’s why the Department needs to aggressively go after the schools themselves to recoup these funds. These schools need to know that if they commit fraud, they — and not their students — will pay the price.
We know that not all for-profit colleges are bad, and that some very good schools use the for-profit model — but that is often the exception, not the rule. Whether it’s for-profit K-12 charter schools or for-profit colleges, Ohioans have seen time and time again that when profit gets injected into education, it’s the students who pay the price.
Congress has let problems with for-profit colleges fester for more than a decade, and the Department of Education sat on the sidelines for far too long. I will keep fighting to make sure students and taxpayers are protected.
Sherrod Brown is a Democratic United States Senator from Ohio.