Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Sen. Paul Pinsky
Sen. Paul Pinsky (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

Md. lawmakers take aim at for-profit colleges

India Dickens says she completed a medical-assistant certification program at a private career school in 2013. Three years later, she’s still waiting for the school to provide her certificate and is more than $10,000 in debt despite having been told that federal aid would cover her tuition.

“It was like … they didn’t care about me. Even the basics, like how was I going to pay for the school,” Dickens said.

With the help of the nonprofit Caroline Center, which provides tuition-free workforce development training to women, Dickens is now a nursing assistant and will soon begin a job at Saint Agnes Hospital.

Dickens’s experience isn’t unique, and some say part of the problem is that these career schools – which provide professional certifications — and for-profit colleges and universities – which offer associate’s degrees and higher — don’t always make clear how much they cost and make empty promises about helping students find work.

But legislation brought before the Maryland General Assembly this session will try to rein in some of those practices by requiring more transparency from these schools and restricting the claims they can make about their programs.

Del. Dana Stein, D-Baltimore County, is sponsoring legislation that would tighten regulations on the state’s for-profit colleges and private career schools. (Daniel Leaderman/The Daily Record)

Del. Dana Stein, D-Baltimore County, is sponsoring legislation that would tighten regulations on the state’s for-profit colleges and private career schools. (Daniel Leaderman/The Daily Record)

House Bill 741 and Senate Bill 427, sponsored by Del. Dana M. Stein, D-Baltimore County and Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, respectively, requires for-profit colleges to provide first-time, full-time undergraduates with a standardized form known as the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet.

That form, designed by the U.S. Department of Education, offers a clear breakdown of the net cost to students – after any grants or scholarships – as well as recommended loan amounts, graduation rates, and the percentage of students who default on their loans, both nationally and at the school in question.

The bill also forbids private career schools from enrolling students in certain programs designed to lead to employment in fields that require a license if those schools can’t actually provide students with the educational requirements needed to get the license.

“It requires private career schools to be good on any representations that they make with respect to employment in a field that requires licensure,” Stein said at a news conference at the Caroline Center last week.

These institutions must also make a net-price calculating tool prominently available on their websites, according to the bill. It also calls for for-profit colleges and universities and private career schools to pay into guaranty funds so students can be reimbursed for their tuition costs if the schools don’t hold up their end of the agreements – including if they go out of business. Such a fund already exists for private career schools.

Disproportionate impact

A report released at the news conference from the nonprofit Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition noted there are 11 for-profit schools and dozens of private career schools operating in the state whose programs have a disproportionate impact on black residents in Maryland. Of the total number of African-Americans enrolled in post-secondary education in the state, 62 percent are enrolled in for-profit or career schools, even though blacks make up 30 percent of the population of the state, according to the report.

The average median debt for Marylanders at for-profit schools is $18,083, while that number is just $5,610 for students at comparable public colleges and universities, according to the report.

“Overall, students at for-profit schools are paying more for their education, taking out larger loans, and facing a greater likelihood of defaulting on their loans,” the report’s authors.

While these private and for-profit programs may be a good fit for some students, public institutions often provide the same or better training at a much lower cost, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said. A dental hygiene degree that can cost more than $50,000 at a for-profit college can cost between $8,000 and $10,000 at a public institution, Frosh said.

“Some of these for-profit schools make it very difficult to figure out how much it costs,” Frosh said. The proposed legislation “will go a long way toward remedying that problem. People ought to know what they’re paying for.”

Late last year, a multistate settlement with Education Management Corporation, which runs a network of for-profit schools across the country, included $1.4 million in loan forgiveness for nearly 1,000 students in Maryland who took courses online. The settlement also required the corporation to offer more financial disclosure and prohibited them from enrolling students in unaccredited programs, according to Frosh’s office.

The proposed legislation is scheduled for a Senate committee hearing Feb. 24.