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August 14, 2012 2:54 PM “Worthless Degrees”

By Minjae Park

Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has introduced a bill to stop federal funds from going to unaccredited college programs that leave graduates unable to find work in that field of study.

Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst in the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation who has written for the Washington Monthly about abusive practices by for-profit colleges, writes that the bill, the Protecting Students from Worthless Degrees Act, would strip financial aid and military and veteran benefits from programs lacking the necessary programmatic accreditation.

Under the bill, higher education institutions would have to ensure their programs have the right state licenses or programmatic accreditations that are necessary for the students to enter the profession for which they are studying.

“Most Americans would be outraged to learn that their tax dollars are going to education programs that do not meet the basic requirements needed for their graduates to enter their chosen profession,” Harkin said in a statement.

If the schools don’t meet those basic requirements, under the bill, they would not be eligible to participate in federal financial assistance programs—Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, G.I. Bill benefits, and Department of Defense Tuition Assistance Funds.

The website of Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a co-sponsor of the bill, describes the problem:

Under a loophole in federal financial aid laws, schools that are institutionally accredited may offer individual programs that lack state licensing or programmatic accreditation, even when they are required in order for their graduates to enter the occupation they were prepared for. Students enter these programs believing that they are preparing for a job in that field, only to discover after graduating, often with heavy debt loads, that they are not qualified to work in that field or take an occupational exam.

The Senate committee heard testimony from Yasmine Issa, a single mother who in 2008 completed a training program in ultrasound technology at a Sanford-Brown Institute for $32,000. Because her program had not been certified by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs, she could not sit in for the licensing exam. “The school as a whole is accredited, but their ultrasound program is not,” she told the committee. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Harkin introduced his bill two days after the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which he chairs, produced a report on July 31 finding widespread abuses in the for-profit education industry.

Republicans on the committee criticized the report—the result of a two-year investigation—for being “biased and inappropriately hostile to for-profit colleges,” as Daniel Luzer wrote when it was released.

The report wasn’t even endorsed by other Democrats on the committee so it’s not going to result in any new legislation. Harkin indicated that legislation was unlikely to more forward given the current congress.
He said the best way to turn his recommendations into laws would be to wait until 2013, when Congress reauthorizes the Higher Education Act.
The chance of such legislation being favorable to Harkin’s “ideological cause,” however, depends on which party takes Congress (and the presidency) in the upcoming election.

A bill withholding taxpayer dollars from unscrupulous institutions in order to, as its name suggests, protect students from worthless degrees should not face any opposition in Congress.

Minjae Park is an intern at the Washington Monthly.