By Delece Smith-Barrow
The Hechinger Report
WASHINGTON – Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) is starting off the school year with a message for current and prospective college students: Stay away from for-profit colleges.
Waters spoke at a panel discussion this week after a showing of Fail State, a documentary that explores how some for-profit colleges trick students into taking on insurmountable debt and enrolling in degree programs that will result in few to no job prospects. In one scene, a student explains how the course he took instructed him to watch YouTube videos to learn how to design video games.
The National Student Legal Defense Network sponsored the screening, which took place at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. The panel also included John B. King, Jr., former Secretary of Education; Wade Henderson, former president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; and Fail State’s director, Alex Shebanow. MarketWatch reporter Jillian Berman moderated the conversation.
Waters is featured in the documentary as someone who has long fought for tighter regulations of these institutions. Her state was home to Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit school that had 23 campuses in California as well as online programs. It closed in 2015 and a year later was ordered to pay $1.1 billion to students and in civil penalties for abusive practices that left thousands of students in debt.
The documentary shows how some for-profit colleges are able to take advantage of students because of the close relationship school leaders have with elected officials.
“This is probably one of the biggest rip-offs and scandals in government of all time,” Waters said. “Some of the people who’ve been involved in assisting these for-profit schools and universities are people who are considered good legislators.”
To make that point, the film shows photographs of Bill Clinton (who was paid millions as an honorary chancellor for Walden University) and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (who has praised John Sperling, the University of Phoenix’s cofounder, for improving access to higher education). Both those schools have made headlines for mistreating students.
Because the for-profit industry has strong connections with Capitol Hill politicians, the film argues, many public servants are focused on keeping these schools in business, no matter how unscrupulous their practices.
King, who was seated next to Waters, said, “Elections have consequences.”
One of Waters’ recommendations for fixing the broken system is to oust Betsy DeVos, the current secretary of education. In August, DeVos proposed legislation that would make it harder for students to have their federal student loan debt forgiven if they attended a school that had engaged in misconduct.
“We have got to change the leadership,” Waters said. “She has never seen the inside of a classroom. She has never served on the P.T.A. She’s never been on a education board in a city.”
Waters, a former teacher, urged the audience to consider the motives of those in power who favor for-profit colleges: “Why is she there? And who is she there for? And why was she appointed?” And, not to leave out Donald Trump, who also ran a for-profit institution that was sued for fraud, Waters asked: “And why is he president?”
This story about for-profit colleges was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.