By Aaron Keck
Following the results of a two-year Senate investigation into for-profit colleges, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) is pushing for new legislation to make it illegal for colleges and universities to spend federal tax dollars on advertising, marketing and recruitment.
Results of the investigation were publicized this week by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee; committee chair Tom Harkin, also a Democrat, is co-sponsoring the bill with Hagan.
Listen to Sen. Hagan's conversation with WCHL's Aaron Keck.
The bill is called the Protecting Financial Aid for Students and Taxpayers Act. It would expand a current law banning colleges from using tax dollars for lobbying, and extend it to include marketing, recruiting and advertising as well. "I hope we can get wide bipartisan support," Sen. Hagan says.
While the proposed Act would apply to all colleges and universities, Sen. Hagan says the problem lies primarily with the for-profit education sector.
"The UNC system, with all 16 campuses, spends 1.3 percent of its total budget on marketing, recruiting and advertising," she says, "versus the for-profits, (which) currently spend anywhere from 23-40 percent of their budget."
The HELP Committee's investigation of for-profit colleges focused on 15 of the most well-known schools in the industry.
"These 15 companies spent $3.7 billion on advertising, marketing and recruiting--which oftentimes is aggressive and deceptive--and that's $3.7 billion that did not go to educating our students," Sen. Hagan says. "In many cases these schools use federal taxpayer dollars for call centers where they literally harass (prospective students) and do predatory marketing...$32 billion of taxpayer dollars went into for-profit colleges, and once again, 23 percent of that was spent on advertising, marketing and recruiting."
In many cases, Sen. Hagan says, that recruiting has focused heavily on veterans returning from overseas.
"Many of these for-profits have really been targeting GIs and our veterans," she says. "A for-profit college went into a wounded-warrior barrack at Camp Lejeune (and) signed up a wounded warrior for classes, (and) later he couldn't even remember what he'd signed up for."
While the bill focuses on for-profit colleges' use of taxpayer dollars, observers in the academic world have also raised concerns about the overall quality of education they provide. Among other things, the HELP Committee's investigation found that at 15 top for-profit colleges, 80 percent of the faculty is part-time, 54 percent of students left within two years without a degree, and 57 percent of those who do receive bachelor's degrees owe more than $30,000 after graduating.
"In many cases they're not graduating (and) they're not getting degrees," says Sen. Hagan. "Some of the schools that are marketing certain programs, those programs aren't leading to jobs."
At UNC-Chapel Hill-where rising tuition sparked widespread student protest earlier this year-the average student graduates with $15,000 in debt.