Trump Invites For-Profit Colleges to Exploit Students

President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Suppose I told you Democrats and Republicans were arguing over the design of a federal entitlement program. One party wants to give money away to everybody, regardless of whether the spending has any useful effect. The other party wants to limit who can get the money based on whether the people getting it are promoting employment.

You’d probably guess that the no-strings-attached spenders are the Democrats, and the tight fists are the Republicans. On the issue of student loans, it’s actually the other way around.

The Education Department today rescinded measures enacted under the Obama administration to impose accountability standards on student loans for for-profit colleges. The for-profit college industry is notorious for exploiting students who hope to obtain marketable skills, and are instead stuck with impossible debts while learning nothing useful. Many students at for-profit colleges earn less money after they graduated than they did beforehand. The Obama-era regulations required colleges to demonstrate that a reasonable percentage of their graduates had obtained gainful employment.

Trump, and his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is replacing the standard, and the lever of withdrawing federal subsidies, with a, uh, webpage. “Instead of targeting schools simply by their tax status, this administration is working to ensure students have transparent, meaningful information about all colleges and all programs,” boasts DeVos. This will ensure students never enroll in terrible for-profit colleges that ruin their lives, assuming those students seek out the Department of Education website, and are already good at using statistical analysis to figure out which schools provide an effective return on investment in their chosen field.

In the far more likely event that most students fail to seek out this information and analyze it correctly, the for-profit college industry will again enjoy a world in which they can enroll students with subsidized federal loans without having to provide anything of value to them or the taxpaying public.

DeVos’s department is also freezing enforcement of another Obama-era measure to protect students from predatory colleges — the “borrower defense,” which enables defrauded students to get their money back.

DeVos’s advisers on this policy have included former lobbyists for the for-profit college industry, who are now pursuing — with the power of government behind them — what they had pursued on behalf of their employers before. Of course, Trump himself agreed in a court settlement to compensate the victims of “Trump University.” If you believe independent reporters, rather than Trump’s own claims, it was not a university at all, but an elaborate scam designed to suss out marks, determine how much money they had, and take it all. There has never been much mystery where his sympathies would lie in any contest between educational scammers and their victims.

One might explain DeVos’s stance as free-market ideology run wild. But there’s no free market to speak of here. The question isn’t whether for-profit colleges can operate, it’s whether they can operate with federal subsidies. The liberal position is that, if the government is going to finance higher education, it should impose some measures to make sure it’s actually getting some higher education. The Trump position is that business is entitled to federal subsidies, and the grifting business is especially welcome.