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Sun editorial: The rising concern over debt and for-profit colleges
August 07, 2012

We join our U.S. senator in his fight to help kids go to college - and not leave with mountains of debt.

Sen. Tom Harkin has been a champion - sometimes the only one - expressing concern about student loans and for-profit schools.

To be clear: We're all for competition among institutions of higher education, and don't view for-profit colleges as bad deals. They have a place alongside places like our own nonprofit Cornell College.

The trouble, though, is what Harkin lays out in an investigation into the issue. We see it as an issue that should raise the eyebrows on both ends of the political spectrum - the social justice folks and those who consider themselves fiscally conservative.

First, consider the issue (as Harkin lays it out): For-profit schools are getting federally backed student loan and grant money while at the same time showing, as Harkin says, "poor student outcomes." Harkin's report shows that:

"Close to one in four students who attends a for-profit school defaults on his or her federal student loans within three years of leaving school. This high rate of default combined with the fact that nearly all students at for-profit schools must borrow money to pay the cost of tuition, has resulted in a sector that enrolls approximately 10 percent of American higher education students but accounts for nearly 50 percent of all student loan defaults."

The social justice folks should be mad that those unprepared for college are being hooked into going.

The fiscally conservative folks should be mad that taxpayers are on the hook when students default in this system.

Sure, it could be argued that this is a personal responsibility issue. The argument goes that these students who attend the schools, then default, shouldn't have taken the college leap in the first place.

Fair enough.

But in a country that values education to the extent that it's expected you go to college, who can blame these students for going after the dream we all share? And in a country that values education, shouldn't we be spending a few resources on educating people about the cost/value of college before they make a mistake later and we're stuck with the bill?

We're not so sure where Harkin's push for reform will go. In this election year, it'll likely be put at the bottom of the pile with other less shiny issues.

So we urge you to join Harkin - and us - in three action steps:

1 - Tell your leaders in the federal government that you're concerned about your tax dollars going to waste.

2 - Spread the word that all prospective students need to read the fine print - and be self-reflective about their own possibilities and limitations - before they dive head-first into college.

3 - Champion places like Cornell - or the U of I, Kirkwood or even Coe. They treat our students - and us taxpayers - with a lot of respect.

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