There is a full-scale war being fought against “for-profit” colleges.  Despite the strong record of most of these institutions and the lack of evidence of wrongdoing in most cases, every college in this sector is now being branded by state and federal agencies as guilty of having deceived students and saddling them with high debt.  Basic American constitutional principles don’t matter in this war.  The presumption of innocence, right to defend one’s self, and due process under the law have been ignored at all levels of government in a rush to judgment and to win political favor.

Consider the recent actions of the Department of Education and a large group of state Attorneys General (AG’s).  The Department is conducting a “negotiated rulemaking committee” to establish new regulations for the Federal Student Aid programs.  In dealing with student claims against the colleges through the rulemaking committee, the AG’s have sent a written proposal that Education simply rely on conclusions and investigative results reached solely by the state AG’s, without providing the opportunity for any defense or due process for the colleges.

In fact, there are reports of ongoing state AG investigations that have lasted for over three years with no sign of ending, and have yet to find credible evidence of any wrongdoing by the particular college.  Under the AG’s proposal, there would be no opportunity for the colleges to defend themselves or to challenge the unproven conclusions of the state investigations.  This unfair process could lead to undeserved heavy sanctions that could destroy the ability of the colleges to serve the vast majority of students, who need the education opportunities provided by these schools.

Certainly, law enforcement at all levels makes mistakes and misinterprets evidence.  Having been a federal prosecutor and an SEC Commissioner, I know full well that untested evidence from investigations is often unreliable.  It takes the full participation of the accused in civil discovery and the court process for all evidence to be adduced and presented, enabling a judge or jury to be able to determine the “truth” of any claim. It is always worth the time to allow a defense to be presented and to afford a defendant due process.  When the apparent victims are naturally sympathetic – like these college students, legal due process is especially important to protect an innocent accused person from a rush to judgment.  It took hundreds of years of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence, the American legal process, and Constitution to establish certain bedrock principles - that an accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty, that he must be allowed the opportunity to defend himself and be accorded due process.  The proposal by the AG’s must have John Adams spinning in his grave.

Our founding fathers cautioned that those who are entrusted with power must be closely watched.  That warning holds true today.  In addressing issues related to for-profit colleges, the Education Department cannot let any state AG act as both judge and jury.  Traditional court and administrative proceedings, under state and federal law, offer a system that provides due process and fairness for both sides – protecting the rights of both the students and the colleges.

Perhaps reason and not a vigilante mentality can still prevail.  If, as it seems, the for-profit sector is being targeted for destruction, the colleges at a minimum deserve their rights to defend themselves through the proper court and administrative proceedings.  The many students who have found for-profit colleges as good investments also have a vested interest in seeing their colleges treated fairly, since they mostly wish to continue the academic programs in which they are enrolled.  Therefore, in the negotiated rule making committee, the Department of Education should seek fairness to all parties and summarily reject the AG’s requests as violating the core principles of justice and jurisprudence.

Campos is a former federal prosecutor and served as a commissioner of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from 2002 – 2007.