Sen. Durbin: Right Issue, Wrong Focus | Commentary

Posted October 28, 2014 at 11:08am

For some years now, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, has waged a war against for-profit colleges and universities. More than almost any member of the United States Congress, he has targeted these institutions of higher learning with the goal of regulating them heavily or putting them out of business altogether.

At times, he has barely been able to control his disdain. Earlier this year, when President Barack Obama proposed new regulations in the wake of the collapse of a major for-profit school, Durbin charged the administration had not gone far enough in clamping down on these “predatory” institutions. “They won’t deny it, they can’t deny it,” Durbin said in May. “When it comes to the facts of the matter, the sector of higher education is disgraceful and scandalous.”

At present, only 10 percent of students enrolled in college in the United States attend for-profit institutions. According to Kiplinger’s, the average cost for a year of tuition and fees at a for-profit college is $13,935, twice the amount of in-state tuition at a public college but a fraction of the cost of a private school like Georgetown University, where Durbin earned two degrees, which has a yearly tuition of $46,200.

Because of the cost and flexible schedules, as well as the ability of students to take courses online, for-profit colleges attract a disproportionate number of minority and nontraditional students. Some of these colleges have proven to be disasters. In June, Corinthian Colleges, a chain with 107 campuses, announced its closure. Others, like the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Strayer University and Walden University, have earned academic accreditation. Kaplan University and American Military University are not only accredited but consistently place among the best online schools in the annual rankings offered by U.S. News and World Report.

Still, Durbin continues his assault on for-profit institutions, which hurts the fortunes of graduates who hold degrees from the better schools. At a Senate hearing in the spring, he said he advised his nephew, who is in the Army, to stay away from American Military University, a top for-profit popular among active and retired servicemen. By disparaging all for-profit schools, Durbin makes it harder for graduates of preferred specialized schools, like AMU, to use their degrees to get jobs.

One of the main complaints made by Durbin is that for-profit schools make money from student loans programs. There is little doubt that the problem of student loan debt is so severe that it may end up threatening the very fabric of the American economy. At present, almost 40 million student loan borrowers owe $1.2 trillion, more than all credit card debt in the country combined. So many graduates have so much debt that it has affected the ability of an entire generation to buy homes and start families.

But who’s really turning a profit on student loans? The federal government for one. The numbers are mind-boggling. In 2013, the Congressional Budget Office announced the Department of Education made a profit of $41 billion — for that fiscal year alone — on student loan programs. Only two companies in the world, according to USA Today, made a bigger profit that year — “Exxon Mobil cleared $44.9 billion  . . .  and Apple cleared $41.7 billion.” Part of the reason for the profits was an increase in the interest rate for Stafford loans from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, has called the profit the federal government is making on student loans “more than wrong, it’s obscene.” She has introduced legislation in the Senate that would reduce student loan debt by cutting government profits, potentially saving borrowers hundreds if not thousands of dollars a month.

If Durbin would advance the Warren bill with the same zeal he attacks for-profit colleges, perhaps he could help achieve what a younger generation of Americans desperately needs right now — relief from student loan debt inflated by staggering government profiteering. Instead, he continues to criticize all for-profit schools, including the good ones, hurting the very students he purports to be defending.

Paul Alexander is the author of “Machiavelli’s Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove.” His political reporting has appeared in George, Rolling Stone, Salon and The Huffington Post.