Last Saturday, I went to a town hall in New Hampshire hoping for the opportunity to ask Pete Buttigieg one question: Would he encourage his education department to cancel federal student debt from predatory for-profit colleges?
I wanted to ask him this question because, in addition to being a 2020 presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. South Bend is only a couple hours from Indianapolis where ITT Technical Institute, one of the largest and most predatory chains of for-profit colleges, was headquartered before they shut down. I know how important my question is because for the past decade I have observed, first hand, how ITT Technical Institute, and other for-profit colleges, shamelessly defrauded students. I was anxious to hear what Mayor Pete plans to do about it.
Ten years ago, I took an entry level position at an organization called The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, also known as ACICS. There, I learned that accreditation is the gateway that allows colleges to participate in federal financial aid programs. There are several kinds of accreditation, and ACICS focuses on the accreditation of for-profit colleges.
In 2010, ACICS was booming. Applications for new schools and new programs poured in from all over the country. Most of these applications were from a handful of large companies that owned chains of schools, including ITT Technical Institute. In my role at ACICS, I coordinated evaluations of these schools.
As I traveled around the country to evaluate ACICS schools, I noticed a trend. Large chains of schools used elaborate advertising techniques to target low-income and minority populations, promise lucrative job prospects, and then charged outrageous tuition for subpar training programs. There was no way the training offered at these schools would give students the earning potential to pay back their student loan debt. Students, fooled by these schools’ lies, were taking out mountains of debt and getting little to nothing in return.
These schools claimed to be invested in helping nontraditional students get an education and better their lives. But when you looked behind the curtain, these companies used predatory practices to target vulnerable populations so that they could profit off federal financial aid, which ACICS accreditation allowed them to access.
As time went on, I realized more unsettling things about ACICS. The Accrediting Council that made decisions about what schools ACICS would accept was largely made of executives from the very same companies engaging in the predatory practices that cheated students for their financial aid money. The fox wasn’t just guarding the hen house–the fox owned the hen house.
After seeing the fraudulent behavior and predatory practices of the for-profit college industry, I made the easy decision to take my career in a different direction and left ACICS. Years later, I was offered a position working for the Project on Predatory Student Lending, an organization standing up for the rights of students who were cheated by the for-profit college industry.
Last Saturday, I was proud to tell Mayor Pete I work with a group that defends former students of predatory for-profit colleges. Our government owes it to students who were sold lies and cheated out of their financial aid to cancel their student loan debt. As Mayor Pete put it, “If we’re going to talk about student loan forgiveness, the very first thing we should look at is the cases of these people who were let down.” I hope that all 2020 candidates see the importance of canceling all student loan debt for students who were let down.