Contributors

Trump administration is putting profits over students

As students work to invest in themselves through postsecondary education, they never should have to worry about being worse off for their effort.

But, far too often, students across the country unwittingly enroll in postsecondary programs that prey on their dreams of success, leaving them with unaffordable debt and minimal job prospects - and that's if they are among the few students who finish these programs at all.

That's why when we led the U.S. Department of Education, we worked to create two critical federal consumer protection regulations - the gainful employment and borrower defense rules - that are now on the Trump administration's chopping block.

Undoing these rules will be a huge step backward for our nation's students.

The gainful employment rules hold career training programs accountable if they produce graduates who owe too much and earn too little.

The first round of data released under this rule in January shows the magnitude of the problem. There are hundreds of programs across the country where students were borrowing thousands of dollars to go into jobs with poverty-level wages. This includes nearly 500 programs - at schools that can receive up to 90 percent of their revenue from federal financial aid - where students take on unaffordable debt while making less than the minimum wage.

Instead of promoting strong futures, we saw that federal aid programs were fattening the bottom line for schools - and, in the case of for-profit schools, for their executives and investors - while those schools' students faced financial ruin.

The borrower defense rule provides students who are cheated by their higher education institutions with debt relief and recovers funds from schools that engage in risky behavior so taxpayers alone aren't left paying the bill.

The borrower defense rule also allows students their day in court by banning a "mandatory arbitration" practice that forces exploited students into secretive proceedings stacked in the schools' favor.

Now, the Trump administration plans to roll back and rewrite both the gainful employment and borrower defense rules. Students and taxpayers will suffer if the administration succeeds in doing so.

The Department of Education went through a lengthy negotiated rule-making process for each of these regulations, receiving thousands of comments from numerous stakeholders. The rules were debated extensively and were informed by institutions of higher education and students themselves.

The gainful employment regulations have, in fact, transformed the career training space over the last several years.

Faced, for the first time, with the actual earnings of their graduates, colleges shuttered poor-performing programs, particularly in fields where their graduates consistently struggled to get a job or made low wages.

Colleges also responded in ways that made their programs a better deal for students: cutting prices, adjusting financial aid, and working harder to secure employer partnerships to show demand for their training.

It's hard to say that any of these things would have happened without strong accountability. Self-regulation of the sector did not work.

Efforts at a "code of conduct" never went anywhere. Transparency is important, but we cannot pretend information alone can overcome the sophisticated marketing operations many of these schools employ.

The Trump administration's plan to rewrite the borrower defense regulations is deeply misguided.

During our time at the Department of Education, we saw thousands of requests for debt relief flow in from borrowers who were defrauded by their colleges and had nowhere else to turn. Behind those claims were real people who were struggling - a veteran hoping to train in a new field, a single mother trying to pay the bills and be a role model to her children, a laid-off factory worker desperate for a different livelihood.

But the Department of Education had to rely on a decades-old borrower defense rule that was not up to the task of mitigating widespread cases of fraud amid massive school closures, such as the collapse of Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute.

Rewriting the borrower defense rules - and delaying the implementation of the current rules in the meantime - will force students desperate for the help they deserve to continue to wait, increasing their financial hardships in the meantime.

Currently, the backlog of borrower defense claims is around 65,000 - and it's growing larger each day.

In the Obama administration, we worked to build a unit at the department dedicated to processing these claims more quickly, and we were making progress.

But that progress has stalled under the current administration. Since Jan. 20, the Department of Education has not approved a single fraud claim.

Protecting students and taxpayers shouldn't be a partisan political issue. In fact, a majority of Americans - nearly 80 percent, with strong support in both parties - favor student loan relief for borrowers who attended colleges that provided deceptive information about programs or outcomes.

Just last week, 18 states plus Washington, D.C., sued the Department of Education over the delay in borrower defense protections.

Given the clear evidence about the need to protect students, the support for borrower defense, and especially since the regulations haven't had the chance to take effect yet, how can the Trump administration be so sure they need fixing?

As former secretaries of Education, we believe in standing up for all of our nation's students, regardless of their circumstances.

Doing away with these regulations amounts to nothing more than a giveaway to programs and schools where the bottom line rarely includes what's best for students.

We can, and must, do better.

Arne Duncan served as secretary of Education from 2009 to 2015 under President Obama. John King was secretary of Education under Obama from 2015 to January 2017.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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