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Students must be made aware of what colleges are credible and which are questionable

The potential for fraud or deception by for-profit colleges in Oregon might seem to be a case of buyer beware.

And indeed, students ought to do thorough research about these privately operated institutions before they plunk down tens of thousands of dollars for an education that may or may not have value in the marketplace.Sept. 2 editorial

However, the opportunity for abuse is clear when you consider the demographic these schools are targeting — the young, the naíve, the poor, as well as unemployed people and returning veterans. As reported recently in the Portland Tribune, some for-profit colleges in the Portland area have collected obscene sums of money from students while providing them with a dubious education.

Students who’ve received loans that will take decades to repay may find themselves with college credits that aren’t accepted anywhere else. Or worse, they may end up with a worthless degree, or their school may close before they even finish their program.

Students and others told the reporter of the high-pressure and predatory practices that some — but not all — for-profit schools employ to recruit students. One young woman interviewed took out $20,000 in loans for a medical assistant program at Heald College, only to have her education upended when the school closed. Another student owes $110,000 for federal and private loans arranged by the for-profit Art Institute of Portland, but she can’t come up with another $3,000 to $4,000 to finish her coursework.

The specter of massive college debt is intimidating enough for a young person who is coming out of a university with a legitimate degree. For someone who got taken for a ride, though, such enormous debt can be defeating and potentially life-altering.

These students’ stories demonstrate that for-profit colleges need greater attention and oversight. Students must be made aware of which colleges are credible and which are questionable. The state of Oregon, which has the power to legislate and regulate against fraud, should take a more active role in protecting students from the troublesome colleges.

The first line of defense should include better information for the student population. Students need to ask questions and receive honest answers about college costs, job placement numbers and whether credits can be transferred to a public institution. One telling statistic is this: On average, an associate degree from a for-profit college will cost four times as much as a similar two-year degree from a community college.

Educating consumers about the risks will be helpful, but Oregon’s regulators also must assert themselves. The Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission is supposed to look into complaints against for-profit colleges, but the reporter’s investigation revealed that it almost never does. Again, lack of awareness seems to be the problem. Very few people know about the commission’s oversight role.

The Higher Education Coordinating Commission must shed its passive stance and begin actively regulating for-profit schools. These institutions depend on federal grants and financial aid for nearly 90 percent of their funding. That’s worrisome in itself, since so many of these colleges have been accused of scamming students.

Not all for-profit colleges deserve a negative reputation, of course, and the state commission can help the good schools by exposing the truth about the undesirable ones. One overdue project is a state website where students can make comparisons between schools. The commission reports that it is working on the site, but three years after the U.S. Congress held hearings on problems with for-profit colleges, the site still is not completed.

It would be easy for the state to say this is a federal problem, but everyone knows how difficult it is for the federal government to act, even when the need is obvious. Oregon, however, has an obligation to its citizens, and, particularly, to the young and vulnerable who are easy prey for school recruiters.

Every student who loses years of his or her life to a useless education and a mountain of debt represents a missed opportunity for Oregon. This state cannot afford to condone that sacrifice.

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