U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced on Monday that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has reached a settlement in its false claims case against the Education Management Corporation (EDMC), an operator of for-profit colleges and universities. The $95.5 million settlement is the largest ever in a higher education false claims case. EDMC will also forgive a total of $102.8 million in loans to over 80,000 students who attended its schools, which include Argosy University, the Art Institutes, Brown Mackie College, and South University, between 2006 and 2014.
The lawsuit was originally filed in 2007 by whistle-blowers within EDMC, who alleged that the organization was offering extra incentives to their admissions officers based on the number of students they enroll, a violation of the Incentive Compensation Ban in the Higher Education Act. Said Attorney General Lynch in her statement, “EDMC’s actions were not only a betrayal of their students’ trust; they were a violation of federal law.”
Reactions to the settlement have been mixed. While it is encouraging to see the DOJ take action against illegal and unethical practices at for-profit institutions, many student and consumer advocates have criticized the settlement for providing too little relief for students who accrued thousands of dollars of federal student loan debt at EDMC institutions.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has indicated that his Department is willing to listen to claims from students who believe that EDMC mislead them when if offered loans, but critics of the deal say listening is not enough. “I am disappointed that the department’s only plan for EDMC students is to hear their complaints,” said Robyn Smith, a lawyer at the National Consumer Law Center, who was quoted in The Chronicle.
Others have criticized the language of the settlement, which did not force EDMC to admit wrongdoing for its actions. Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst at New America, laments the continued lack of accountability of for-profit institutions.
“Too many of these cases are settled without finding fault,” he said in the same Chronicle article, “and the for-profit industry has been able to say, ‘Oh, nothing is proven.’”
Despite its issues, this settlement is another step in the Federal Government’s continuing efforts to rein in the questionable behavior of for-profit colleges and universities. Last year, the Department of Education formed an interagency task force to more rigorously oversee for-profit institutions of higher learning. The Department of Defense also suspended all tuition assistance to the University of Phoenix, which targets veterans in its recruiting efforts.
Overall student debt levels of recent bachelor’s degree recipients continue to rise according to Student Debt and the Class of 2013, a new report from the Project on Student Debt at The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS). The report includes 2013 state- and college-level debt data for graduates from colleges that opt to disclose their graduates’ debt. However, since very few for-profit colleges choose to disclose debt data, the report’s figures represent only public and nonprofit colleges.
- At the national level, 69 percent of graduating seniors had student loans and those that borrowed had an average debt of $28,400 – a 2 percent increase over 2012. For comparison, in 2013, 50 percent of UW undergraduates graduated with debt, and those that borrowed graduated with an average debt load of $21,471.
- At the state level, borrowers’ average debt at graduation ranged from $18,656 to $32,795, and the likelihood of graduating with debt ranged from 43 to 76 percent. In six states, average debt was greater than $30,000; in one state, it was under $20,000. Nearly all the highest debt states were in the Northeast and Midwest, with the lowest debt states in the West and South. In Washington, 58 percent of graduates had debt, and those that borrowed had an average of $24,418 in loans. Debbie Cochrane, research director at TICAS and coauthor of the report, says, “The importance of state policy and investment cannot be overstated when it comes to student debt levels.”
- At the college level, borrowers’ average debt at graduation varied widely – ranging from less than $2,500 to more than $71,000 – and the likelihood of graduating with debt also varied – running from 10 percent to 100 percent. At nearly one in five (18%) colleges, average debt rose at least 10 percent, while at 7 percent of colleges, average debt decreased by at least 10 percent. In general, colleges with higher costs had higher average debt at graduation, although that wasn’t always the case.
The authors note that the report’s data have significant limitations, primarily because colleges are not required to report debt levels for their graduates. Only 57 percent of public and nonprofit bachelor’s degree-granting colleges provided data, representing 83 percent of graduates in those sectors. And for-profits, as mentioned, were excluded because hardly any chose to disclose their graduates’ debt. Even colleges that do provide data may understate graduates’ debt loads because they do not include transfer students and are often not aware of all private loans.
Thus, the report’s main recommendation is to get better debt data via federal collection of cumulative student debt data for all schools. The report also makes recommendations about reducing students’ need to borrow, helping students make better-informed college decisions, and simplifying income-driven repayment plans.
See the report or TICAS’ interactive map for more information.
 Federal data for 2012 graduates of for-profit. four-year colleges show that the vast majority (88%) took out student loans and that borrowers graduated with an average of $39,950 in debt—43 percent more than bachelor’s recipients in the other sectors. In addition, students at for-profits tend to default on their loans much more frequently than students in other sectors.
The Education Department’s (ED) final “gainful employment rule,” which was released yesterday, will hold vocational programs accountable to just one of the two outcome metrics that were proposed in the March draft rule. Cohort default rates (CDRs) were eliminated from the legislation, meaning that debt-to-earnings ratios will be the only criteria upon which individual career education programs are evaluated to determine federal aid eligibility.
Community colleges had advocated for the change on the grounds that a relatively small number of their students take out federal loans and, thus, cohort default rates are “materially and statistically unrepresentative of all the students in a program.”
Student and consumer advocates, however, have contended that the change weakens the rule and doesn’t do enough to protect students and taxpayers. Pauline Abernathy – Vice President for The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), a consumer advocacy group – issued a written statement yesterday saying:
“We and more than 50 student, civil rights, veterans, consumer, and education organizations urged the Obama Administration to strengthen its draft gainful employment regulation, but instead this final regulation is even weaker. The final rule also does not provide any financial relief to students who enroll in programs that lose eligibility; lets poorly performing programs enroll increasing numbers of students, right up to the day the programs lose eligibility; and even passes programs in which every student drops out with heavy debts they cannot pay down.”
For-profit colleges weren’t pleased with the outcome either, arguing that the legislation does nothing to fix a proposal they see as being “fundamentally flawed.”
Arne Duncan, the education secretary, estimates that 1,400 programs—99 percent of which are at for-profit colleges—will fail the rule in the first year. However, that number is 500 less than it would have been under the March version of the rule. Unfortunately, of those 500 programs, 15 are ones where students are more likely to default than they are to graduate. See the article by TICAS for more information.
Since programs will only become ineligible for federal aid after they fail the debt-to-earnings tests twice in a three-year period or are “in the zone” for four consecutive years, institutions will not face penalties for at least three more years. Therefore, it is possible that the gainful employment rule will be revised yet again before its effects are truly felt.
The U.S. Department of Education (ED) recently released its annual update on federal student loan cohort default rates (CDRs), which measure the frequency with which student borrowers at all levels (undergraduate, graduate, etc.) default on their federal loans. Although the UW’s CDR rose while the national CDR declined, the UW’s rate still remains well below that of the nation.
ED is in its first year of using only the more accurate three-year CDR measure – as opposed to the two-year CDR. Thus, this year’s report only includes the FY2011 three-year CDR, which represent the percentage of student borrowers who entered into repayment in FY2011, but failed to make loan payments for a 270-day period within three years of leaving school.
The Department provides breakdowns of its data by institution type, state and school. Here are some key findings:
- The national three-year CDR declined from 14.7 to 13.7 percent overall.
- The three-year rate decreased over last year’s rates for all sectors:
- Public institutions decreased very slightly from 13.0 to 12.9 percent,
- Private nonprofits decreased from 8.2 to 7.2 percent, and
- For-profits’ whopping 21.8 percent rate decreased to 19.1 percent.
- The UW’s three-year CDR increased slightly from 3.9 to 4.3 percent, but this is still nearly 10 percentage points below the national average.
While this is good news, many students still struggle to afford ever-increasing tuition fees and/or to repay their student loans. The UW reaches out to our former students at risk of default on their Stafford Loans and helps identify federal repayment options that could benefit them. Former UW students who are in default or experiencing difficulties repaying their loans can contact the Office of Student Financial Aid for assistance (firstname.lastname@example.org, 206-543-6101). Students can also visit studentloans.gov to explore their repayment options.
On Monday, Kaplan University launched “Open College” which is intended to help adult students earn a Bachelor of Science degree in Professional Studies by offering credit for a combination of competency-based course assessments, experiential learning, and external exams (AP, IB, CLEP, DSSTs, etc.). Open College will include free online courses and mentoring to help prospective students identify and organize prior experience that could qualify for college credit. Once students enroll and have their prior skills assessed for credit, they will pay a subscription fee of $195 per month, an assessment fee of $100 per each of the remaining 35 “course equivalents” needed to earn a degree, and a $371-per-credit fee for a final six-credit capstone course.
According to The Chronicle:
“A student entering with no credits who pursued the program for 48 straight months could earn a bachelor’s degree for about $15,000. Students who earned credits based on their prior experience would end up paying less than that. Officials expect that such students would typically enroll with about 60 credits, take 24 to 30 months to complete a degree, and pay about $9,500.”
Kaplan’s administration sees Open College as the newest candidate in the hunt to create a $10,000 bachelor’s degree and as a new, flexible way for adults to advance their career. While Open College’s structure and pricing may work well for some students, a few things should be considered before rushing to enroll in Open College.
First, students at Open College will receive little, if any, financial aid. Open College’s website says it will not participate in federal student aid programs; it also gives no indication that students will be eligible for state financial aid or that it will offer any form of institutional aid. Therefore, although comparisons are difficult and potentially problematic, it’s worth noting that in 2013-14, resident students at public four-year institutions paid an average of $3,120 in annual net tuition and fees (published tuition and fees less grant and aid scholarship from federal, state or institutional sources). If we assume, as Kaplan did, that a student entering with no credits would take 48 months to earn a degree and that tuition and fees would not increase during those four years, then a resident student who enters a public four-year with no previous credits would pay roughly $12,480 in tuition and fees to earn a four-year degree, compared to a similar student at Open College who would pay $15,000. Of course, this total does not consider the cost of rent or room and board, which can be very expensive; but neither does Open College’s estimate, even though a student earning a degree through their program would presumably still be spending money to eat and live while earning a degree.
Second, employer doubts about the quality of an online degree may impact graduates’ employability. According to the results of two surveys released last fall, only 41 percent of hiring managers believe that online programs are of the same quality as traditional, in-person programs.
On Thursday, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) released its most State Outlook. According to the report, state operating support for public four-year colleges and universities is 3.6 percent higher for FY 2015 than it was for FY 2014. Of the 49 states that have passed a budget thus far, support for higher education increased in 43 states and decreased in only 6 states. Of those 6 states that reduced funding, all were under 3 percent: Alaska, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, Washington (0.8 percent decrease) and West Virginia.
There was a relatively small amount of variation between states in terms of their year-to-year funding changes. For FY 2015, the spread between the state with the largest gain and that with the largest cut was only a 24 percent—this is compared to 57 percent, 25 percent and 46 percent, respectively, in FYs 2012, 2013 and 2014. The report notes that this decreased volatility likely indicates “a continued post-recession stabilization of states’ budgets.”
Charitable contributions to U.S. colleges and universities increased 9 percent in 2013, to $33.8 billion—the highest recorded in the history of the Council for Aid to Education (CAE) Voluntary Support of Education (VSE) survey. In addition, college and university endowments grew by an average of 11.7 percent in FY 2013, according to a January 2014 study released by the National Association of College and University Business Officers and the Commonfund Institute. This represents a significant improvement over the -0.3 percent return in FY 2012.
The report also describes ten highlights/trends from states’ 2014 legislative sessions, those being:
- State initiatives linking student access to economic and workforce development goals.
- Tuition freezes or increase caps in exchange for state reinvestment—this occurred in Washington and another example is discussed in our previous post.
- Performance-based funding systems that attempt to align institutional outcomes with state needs and priorities.
- Governor emphasis on efforts to advance state educational attainment goals.
- Interest in policies related to vocational and technical education, including allowing community colleges to grant certain four-year degrees (as described in our previous post).
- Efforts to develop a common set of expectations for what K-12 students should know in mathematics and language arts.
- STEM-related initiatives, including additional funding for STEM scholarships in Washington.
- Financial support for the renovating and/or constructing of new campus facilities—unfortunately, Washington’s legislature did not pass a capital budget.
- Bills allowing individuals to carry guns on public college and university campuses—as of March 2014, seven states had passed such legislation.
- Legislation that extends in-state tuition or, as occurred in Washington, state financial aid to undocumented students.
Other noteworthy policy topics described in the report include:
- Student financial aid programs—some states broadened their programs while others limited them;
- Online and competency-based education reciprocity agreements;
- “Pay It Forward” Funding Schemes; and
- Consumer protection as it pertains to student recruitment, advertising and financial aid at for-profit colleges.
Here’s a quick roundup of some of this week’s headlines in higher ed news.
Report Argues Gainful Employment Rules Could Hurt For-Profits’ Students
According to a study commissioned by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, up to 44 percent of students at for-profit colleges could lose access to federal financial aid under the latest “gainful employment” proposal. The authors of the report—Jonathan Guryan, an economist at Northwestern University, and Matthew Thompson of Charles River Associates, a consulting firm—argue that since for-profits tend to serve students who have fewer financial resources and less academic preparation, the proposed rules would leave students without other options. Additionally, the report asserts that the rules should not be based on short-term measures of earnings and student debt, as such metrics tell an incomplete story. The Department of Education released the proposed rules in March. The window for public commenting closed on Tuesday. This report was part of a final lobbying campaign by both sides.
Startups Playing Matchmaker with Students and Employers
Several startups have begun serving as matchmakers between community college students and employers. One of the startups, called WorkAmerica, states that it will provide students with a legally binding job offer before they enroll at one of the startup’s partner colleges. WorkAmerica has already started placing students into trucking programs, and plans to expand to other “high churn” employers, such as those that hire welders, IT technicians, and medical assistants. Another similar startup, called Workforce IO, connects employers with “trainers”—which can include community colleges, in addition to nonprofits and other mentoring agencies. The company uses a library of 275 job-skills “badges” to vouch for its workers’ skills. In an era when students are increasingly concerned with their post-graduation employment opportunities, it’s possible that such a model could be applied to some programs at four-year institutions.
Data Say College is Worth More Than Ever
Research shows that not only is a college degree is worth the time and money it takes to earn one; it’s worth more than ever. According to analysis of Labor Department statistics by the Economic Policy Institute, the pay gap between college graduates and those who either never went to college or never graduated from college, reached a record high last year. The NY Times article summarizes, “Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. That’s up from 89 percent five years earlier, 85 percent a decade earlier and 64 percent in the early 1980s.”
On Monday, the U.S. Education Department (ED) began formal negotiationson the draft language of a proposed new “gainful employment” rule. The rule, originally published in 2011, was designed to enforce a requirement of the Higher Education Act that states career education programs—non-degree programs at all colleges and most degree programs at for-profit colleges—must “prepare students for gainful employment” in order to participate in federal student aid programs. The rule was meant to discourage these programs from misusing federal aid dollars and leaving students with debts burdens they are unable to repay. However, in 2012 a federal judge rejected major provisions of the rule, requiring that ED rethink its strategy.
Here’s a summary of the changes:
- The proposed rule applies to programs with as few as 10 students, whereas the old rule counted only career-focused programs with 30 or more students. Because of this change, ED estimates that the new rule could cover 11,359 programs at for-profit and nonprofit colleges—nearly twice as many as the old rule covered—and that 974 of those programs (9 percent) could fail to meet the proposed standards.
- The draft regulation omits loan-repayment as a criterion for federal student aid eligibility. The old rule severed federal aid to programs where too few students were repaying their loans or where graduates’ debt-to-earnings and debt-to-discretionary-income ratios were too high. The new rule removes the loan repayment standards, which the courts deemed “arbitrary and capricious,” and relies only on the latter two measures.
- Debt-to-earnings calculations would be based only on students who receive federal aid, rather than students who complete the program. The old calculations were based on all students who completed the program, whereas the proposed calculations are based on any students who receive federal student loans and Pell Grants, regardless of whether they complete the program. As the rule is designed to ensure that federal aid is used effectively, this seems a more appropriate approach.
- Schools would have fewer chances to improve their performance before losing federal aid eligibility. Under the previous rule, programs that failed the measures in 3 out of any 4 years would be ineligible for federal student aid. However, the new rule only lets programs fail in 2 out of any 3 years before they lose eligibility.
For details, see a comparison of the two versions prepared by the Education Department. Please continue to follow our blog as well as the Federal Relations blog for updates on this topic.
Last Wednesday, eight Democratic senators sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) asking Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, to investigate strategies that some for-profit colleges allegedly use to falsely lower their cohort default rates (CDRs)—the rate at which student borrowers default on federal loans. Institutions with high CDRs can face penalties including a loss of eligibility for federal student aid programs.
The letter cites a recent Senate Committee report, which presents evidence that for-profits routinely use two tactics
in particular to manipulate CDRs:
- “Encouraging or even harassing borrowers” into forbearances or deferments, which can delay default until after the
period for which CDRs are typically reported; and
- Manipulating campus and program categorizations in a way that makes their default rates artificially low.
The senators argue that “for-profit schools should not be able to use administrative smoke and mirrors to circumvent regulations that protect students and taxpayers, and the department should take action to prevent these tactics.” Some for-profits have admitted to using such strategies to “manage” their CDRs, but they deny that doing so conflicts with their students’ best interests.
For-profits consistently average higher default rates than all other higher education sectors. Of the students who began repaying loans in 2009, 22.7 percent of students at for-profits defaulted within three years, while only 11 percent of public students defaulted in that timeframe, and only 7.5 percent of private nonprofit students. In contrast, the UW’s three-year CDR was an impressively low 3.1.
Comparing for-profits’ two-year CDRs with newly-reported three-year CDRs reveals a major, and potentially damning, discrepancy. Fifty percent more students from for profits’ defaulted in the three-year timeframe than in the two-year timeframe. The senators say this “raises serious questions about how widespread the use of such tactics may be across the sector.”
ED has yet to respond to the senators’ letter.
The Wisconsin Education Approval Board, which oversees all for-profit colleges located in the state and any online-learning programs offered to its residents, may require that those institutions achieve specific performance standards in order to operate within Wisconsin. Specifically, that board is proposing to require that at least 60 percent of a college’s students complete their studies within a certain time-frame and at least 60 percent of its graduates have jobs. Public universities and private nonprofit colleges are not under the board’s jurisdiction and would therefore be exempt from the requirements.
The board already collects and publishes data on its institutions. According to those reports, average completion rates fell from 82 to 59 percent over the last six years and the percentage of graduates who were employed during a given year dropped from 44 to 22 percent (in the same time frame).
The Chronicle reports that the board is basing its standards on what they believe “Wisconsin consumers would find ethical, responsible, and acceptable for institutions choosing to enroll them.” However, for-profit colleges have already submitted letters to the board arguing that the proposed standards are “arbitrary and should not be broadly applied to a diverse set of programs, which often enroll underserved populations.”
While the federal government’s “gainful employment” rule is similar to Wisconsin’s proposal, it is unusual to see a state attempt this type of regulatory system. Some states have increased their requirements for online and for-profit institutions—but Wisconsin’s proposal is especially aggressive. For-profits that wish to operate in Washington must receive authorization from the Washington Student Achievement Council, which considers institutions; “financial stability, business practices, academic programs, and faculty qualifications”—but does not yet hold them to specific graduation or employment standards.
On Wednesday, Wisconsin’s board voted unanimously to postpone a final decision until a team made of board members, representatives from colleges and universities, and State legislators can review the proposal more thoroughly. The team is scheduled to make recommendations to the board in June of 2013.
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