The Trump Administration is preparing to unveil the new Department of the Inferior next summer. That’s not a typo — Inferior, not Interior or Superior. It will appear next July 1, the day the education secretary will let the wolves back into the henhouse in the world of for-profit institutions.
You might remember hot-spots like Corinthian Colleges or the ITT Technical Institute. In their day, they did big business enrolling students in courses from cosmetology to space-age aeronautics and medical coding. These were technical fields which, we were pledged, would provide tomorrow’s sought-after jobs.
And the clincher: they’d secure funding for the student loans required to pay for all these certificates and diplomas.
The Obama administration detected the scent of rats in the works starting around 2010. It wondered what would stop “institutions” from loading up their rolls with fancy-sounding courses leading to worthless degrees that would saddle their hopeful students with millions in debt. Starting in 2010, it enacted a series of rules requiring institutions to compare student loans to graduate earnings. The threat of a cut-off in federal funding made it work.
You know the rest of the story. Trump appointed Betsy DeVos education secretary and she stocked her offices with the for-profit sector. She also decided to scrap prior rules.
Remember Trump University? The name and reputation of Donald Trump in real estate was enough to get students salivating over Trump-U. Except hundreds found the contents worthless and couldn’t find Trump at all except on videotape.
Trump denied all wrongdoing, of course. But he quietly settled many of the claims made in lawsuits. Trump also find a way to retaliate. He found one in the DeVos’ Friday announcement. After a public comment period, DeVos and Trump are expected to enact their reforms July 1, 2019.
Some — led by the for-profit college sector — viewed the Obama regs as typical unnecessary government interference in business. Others, noting the threat of federal funding cutoffs, observed that hundreds of the worst worthless-diploma offenders had gone out of business.
The rules had worked in partially policing a rogue business practice. They had helped protect students from getting fleeced, and encouraging them to evaluate what they were signing up for.
The lies, fibs, exaggerations, and denials cost lots of money — billed to you and me.
This seemed a good outcome. DeVos has even admitted as much by promising more “information” to prospective students about the costs and debts of for-profit schools.
This seems the work of dogma in action. Reducing regulation has long been a rallying cry of Trumpists since they took control of the executive branch after the 2016 elections.
The cost of all this has been neglect to the idea of better government. We got a whiff of that when Scott Pruitt was Secretary of the Interior. He quickly became branded as the Secretary of Entitlement. He didn’t appear to care about better. He was perfectly happy with inferior — as long as his plane rides, fancy offices and digs were properly paid for by taxpayers. That’s just the example all kids should follow, right?
Beyond the for-profit education scandal is a far deeper problem, rooted in the rewards of high profits. The student debt crisis did not just grow out of a crowd of misbegotten schools which could get away with all sorts of diploma promises because the field was unregulated. Where there was money to be made in lending, dozens piled on. The for-profit industry milked profits to be made by encouraging far more borrowing. Profits required enrollees, and enrollees required loans. Loans would also play a large part in setting fees and tuition rates for courses accountable to no one — except taxpayers.
The entire industry — profit and non-profit — was caught up in ballooning student loans. Top, reputable schools “stretched” tuition rates, rapidly elevating their highest prices. They would alter formulas for “scholarships” to recognize reality: that many students could afford to pay full freight, particularly to name-schools. The biggest schools quietly joked about auctioning off seats to the top five percent of the Classes of 2025 on. They dreamed of full freight — even up-front — for coveted spots, and would use the new revenue to help fund higher scholarships for deserving students.
This rush to ever-higher education costs has its dirty side: retirees and declaring bankruptcy in record numbers, felled in part by skyrocketing fees in medicine and schooling.
You’d think that all this might attract the caring attention of public officials, intent on attracting the twin cost of debt and fees over time. Instead, we’re roiled by calls to make ourselves “Great Again.”
This will start next July with the Department of the Inferior, whose primary task will be to “reduce regulation.”
In time, we’ll settle for Inferior, on the apparent road to “Great Again.”
The writer (email@example.com)is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.