The Corner


The Obama Administration’s Reckless Attacks on For-Profit Higher Ed

President Barack Obama in 2016 (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

During the Obama years, the Department of Education (woe that it was ever created at all) was a hotbed of progressive activism. One bunch fastened a host of rules on colleges for dealing with sexual-assault allegations that trampled all over our concepts of due process of law, while another launched a regulatory crusade against the for-profit sector. In the latter, officials demonized the for-profits with a broad brush, calling them predators who were cheating students and taxpayers, then brought suit against several that were not intended to right any wrongs, but to destroy the schools.

In today’s Martin Center article, law professor Michael DeBow of Samford University looks at this regulatory onslaught and finds that it inflicted a great deal of harm on innocent people.

DeBow points out that the for-profits were responsible for improvements in the delivery of education that helped many students, especially non-traditional ones. In general, most of those students expressed satisfaction with their experience. But some schools did try to over-hype themselves to prospective students (as do many non-profit colleges) and that was the opening that federal officials used against them.

Focusing on one of the biggest cases, against Corinthian Colleges, DeBow notes that while the department made numerous allegations of wrongdoing, especially inflating job-placement data, there was never any assessment of the frequency or materiality of these shortcomings. That’s because the department levied a huge fine that promptly drove Corinthian into bankruptcy. Some 70,000 students had their educational plans disrupted and then taxpayers were nailed with losses when the government decided to forgive their loans.

DeBow writes:

My point here is not that there was no merit to the Department’s complaints about Corinthian, but that the Department’s heavy-handed (and arguably politically motivated) assault on it and other for-profit schools never allowed for a sensible assessment of the actual harms done and a weighing of the competing interests.

The contrast between the reckless approach of federal bureaucrats on an ideological mission and how such cases might have been handled in civil court is striking. The regulatory process with its openness to abuse is the problem.

The for-profit higher ed sector has shrunk dramatically over the last decade and shows only a slight rebound under the Trump administration. DeBow thinks he knows why:

Probably a main reason is that it would take only a new Democratic administration for there to be a renewal of the administrative crusade against for-profits. We may see little revival in the for-profit sector until we have reined in the Education Department’s authority to pick and demolish targets.

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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