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Editorial: A lesson in greed in for-profit school industry

U.S. Sen. Tom Hark(D-Iowa)  releases Senate Democratic report Monday thsays for-profit schools often hit vulnerable students with exorbitant tuitiabysmal

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) , releases a Senate Democratic report Monday that says for-profit schools often hit vulnerable students with exorbitant tuition and abysmal student outcomes. | J. Scott Applewhite~AP

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Updated: September 2, 2012 6:14AM

Twenty-four years ago, after the Chicago Sun-Times published “Bitter Lessons,” an investigative series on the for-profit school industry, this page called for major reforms.

“Some of these schools leave the students without an education, without a job and without a dream,” we wrote. “But they are left with something: an obligation to pay back a student loan, often running into the thousands of dollars.”

Nothing has changed since then, except this: It has gotten worse — the crummy education, the enormous student debt, the exploitation.

On Monday, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) released a report showing that profit-hungry schools too often leave students with nothing but mountains of debt that can’t be discharged, even through bankruptcy. For-profit schools aggressively recruit students and persuade them to take out government-backed loans, but most drop out, the report said. Of those who graduate with a bachelor’s degree, 57 percent owe $30,000 or more, compared with 25 percent at private nonprofits and 12 percent at public universities.

The schools lure students with promises of high-paying jobs but often don’t deliver. One woman who testified before Congress said she owed $90,000 after earning a for-profit school law-enforcement degree that turned out to be worthless. The Iran and Afghanistan Veterans of America recently complained that for-profit schools overcharge and undereducate veterans.

Let’s be clear: Some for-profit schools have good track records. But as government funding for higher education continues to be cut, ever more opportunity is created for less-scrupulous operations just chasing the money. Top executives at for-profit schools earned an average of $7.3 million in 2009 even as the five highest-paid leaders of large public institutions averaged $1 million.

Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, said Harkin’s report “con­tinues in the tradition of ideology overriding reality.”

Gunderson is right that there’s a tradition. Unfortunately, it’s one of schools lavishing themselves with fat profits while debt-ridden students are left with worthless degrees or no degrees at all.

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