Ledyard King, USATODAY 6:20 p.m. EST December 4, 2015
WASHINGTON — On the presidential campaign trail, Marco Rubio likes to poke fun at a higher education system that he says churns out droves of liberal arts majors saddled with student loan debt and dim job prospects.
The Florida senator and Republican presidential candidate says the nation needs more welders and fewer philosophers.
Rubio should know about leaving school with a pile of debt. On the day he was sworn into the Senate in 2011, he owed more than $100,000 in student loans after earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida in 1993 and a law degree from the University of Miami in 1996.
It helps explain why he's so critical of federal student loan programs, which he says unfairly favor four-year colleges.
Rubio wants to change accreditation rules to let more vocational schools and online universities take advantage of the roughly $130 billion a year in federal loans and grants — but only if they meet certain benchmarks tied to student outcomes and debt repayment.
“Although these programs have proven to hold great promise, they are neglected by our current higher-education system,” Rubio wrote in a recent column for the National Review. “These innovative providers cannot compete with the cartel of existing brick-and-mortar colleges and universities that dominates the accreditation process and shields our higher-education system from reform, competition, and accountability.”
Schools win accreditation if they meet or exceed federally approved standards that are set by regional boards, whose members come from already accredited schools.
Schools must be accredited to qualify for federal financial aid, including Pell Grants. Because four-year schools help set the standards, many alternative private schools and academies specializing in career training have had a difficult time winning accreditation.
Critics of Rubio’s proposal say it would benefit for-profit schools that have come under sharp scrutiny by government regulators for high-pressure recruiting tactics and failure to deliver on their promises of success in the job market.
That's why the Obama administration implemented a rule July 1 saying colleges and universities must prepare students for "gainful employment in a recognized occupation" before students at those schools can qualify for federal aid.
Programs are considered in compliance if a typical graduate's annual loan payments don't exceed 20% of discretionary income or 8% of total earnings.
Students at for-profit schools represent about 11% of the higher-education population but account for 44% of federal student loan defaults, according to the Education Department.
The answer is to reduce — not increase — federal aid to for-profit schools, said Whitney Barkley, legislative policy counsel for the Center for Responsible Lending.
“This is a spigot issue," Barkley said Tuesday during a forum on student debt at the liberal Center for American Progress. "The problem is there are federal dollars flowing into unscrupulous schools and somebody needs to turn them off. We turn the spigot off and the problem goes away.”
Rubio’s support for for-profit institutions isn't unusual considering he represents a state where almost 18% of about 1.7 million college students attended for-profit schools during the 2012-13 academic year, according to federal data. Nationwide, about 12% of college students attend for-profit schools
Rubio went out of his way to help one for-profit school — Corinthian Colleges — when California state regulators and federal education officials investigated it last year for false advertising, deceptive marketing and misrepresenting job placement rates.
Last year, Rubio asked the Education Department to “demonstrate leniency” after regulators restricted Corinthian’s access to federal financial aid.
“Of utmost concern is the thousands of students attending 14 Corinthian-affiliated campuses throughout the state of Florida,” Rubio wrote in a June 20, 2014, letter.
“It would be nothing less than an injustice to disrupt the educational endeavor of those students who are seeking to better their futures by effectively forcing Corinthian to shut their doors.”
That letter — combined with the $15,000 Corinthian donated to Rubio and his leadership PAC from 2010 to 2013 — have fueled criticism of Rubio's advocacy on behalf of for-profit schools.
Corinthian shut down in April after it was fined $30 million by the Education Department. The government’s decision to forgive the federal loans of students who attended Corinthian or one its affiliates could cost taxpayers tens of millions, Education Undersecretary Ted Mitchell told reporters in June.
The head of the trade group that represents for-profit schools said the Obama administration has waged “an ideological war” on the industry, noting that more than 500 campuses have closed since 2009.
Former GOP congressman Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin, now president and CEO of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, praised Rubio for seeing the “bigger picture” on higher education.
“He is the one candidate of either party that’s really raising that issue and is addressing what clearly the data shows is going to be an emerging skill gap over the next few years as baby boomers retire and as new jobs require additional skills,” Gunderson said.
Rubio has teamed with Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado on a bill that would benefit a number of alternative higher education programs currently ineligible for federal student aid. The measure would allow them access to such aid if they demonstrate “high student outcomes, including student learning, completion, and return on investment,” according to Bennet’s office.
The bill would create a new accrediting authority using more expansive criteria — such as job placement rates and student loan repayment rates — than those used by the regional boards.
The proposal gets a thumbs-up from Amy Laitinen, who handles higher education issues at New America, a Washington think tank.
Current accreditation rules rely on irrelevant yardsticks such as the number of books in a university library and the percentage of faculty holding Ph.D.s, said Laitinen, a former higher-education policy adviser in the Obama administration. Those metrics “have nothing to do with whether or not students are learning anything and whether or not they’re getting a good value on their education,” she said.
“I actually think this is an attempt to make accreditation meaningful,” Laitinen said of the Rubio-Bennet proposal. “If (Rubio) was just saying, let’s let new providers in the market and give them money, I would say absolutely not. That’s a terrible idea. But if you’re saying we’re going to hold them to a higher standard than we hold traditional higher ed, then yeah, absolutely, because we don’t hold higher ed to any standards at this point.”
Contributing Fredreka Schouten and Bill Theobald, USA TODAY