AFT defends regulations against sexual assault and fraud

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Four AFT leaders defended crucial protections for college students at a Department of Education hearing Oct. 4, demanding that officials stop threatening to repeal regulations such as those that help deter sexual assault on campus and others that hold for-profit colleges accountable for fraud and exploitation. The proposed repeals are part of a larger program designed to minimize regulations in general, but these particular rules target higher education and student safety.

Perhaps the most charged testimony involved regulations associated with Title IX, elements of which provide protection to sexual assault survivors. AFT President Randi Weingarten urged the department to preserve Title IX regulations and expressed dismay over recent indications it would loosen them and set back progress on campus safety. "I've been stunned to watch the United States Secretary of Education recite the arguments of rape deniers who want to roll back the clock and revive the culture of silence that survivors of campus sexual assault have endured," she said. "One in five undergraduate women is sexually assaulted. But fewer than 10 percent of all sexual assaults are reported, because survivors are afraid of coming forward. We can't look away."

Department of Education headquarters

AFT-Washington President Karen Strickland echoed Weingarten's plea. "We continue to live in a country where 20 percent of women and 6 percent of men will be sexually assaulted while in college," she said. "The rollback is unconscionable and counterproductive. Maintaining the regulations is essential."

Also important are protections against the fraud so common among profit-driven colleges. Many advertise highly successful programs and elevated job opportunities for graduates, but deliver none of it. Elizabeth Ramsay, president of United Faculty of Miami Dade College, gave an apt example: The for-profit Dade Medical College convinced thousands of new students they could graduate faster than they would from MDC's own well-established nursing program, but pass rates at the for-profit were as low as 13 percent. Its students were unqualified for jobs despite hundreds of millions of dollars of public investment through student loans. The school closed when its founder was convicted of campaign finance fraud involving legislators who relaxed education standards for the college. "The story of Dade Medical College is just one example of why some federal regulation of higher education is necessary," said Ramsay, who urged the department to retain and enforce gainful employment regulations.

Weingarten recalled other "shocking" stories recited in earlier hearings, then added, "The only thing worse than ripping off students is knowingly denying them an opportunity to relieve their debt." She noted that the department has not processed one single application for loan forgiveness, despite thousands of students left in the lurch when for-profit colleges went bankrupt and left them with student debt, but no degrees. "Borrower defense," one type of loan forgiveness, could help these students by forgiving their loans and allowing them to get back on firm financial footing.

Many students who attend for-profit colleges are the most economically vulnerable, said John MacDonald, president of the Henry Ford Community College Federation of Teachers in Dearborn, Mich., and an AFT vice president. He noted an array of elements that can interrupt or halt a college education for them: Canceled child care arrangements, unexpected illness, lack of health insurance, unreliable public transportation, expensive car repairs and unpredictable work shifts all make higher education a stretch for many. Adding the debt incurred to attend fraudulent institutions makes it nearly impossible. No one is served by students who are poorly educated, he added, and "bad institutions tarnish the proprietary education industry as a whole," all for the sake of profit at the taxpayers' expense. "In the absence of regulation, bad institutions diminish the standing of all."

The AFT leaders were among dozens of people who testified regarding the proposed deregulation in the Department of Education. All testimony will be taken into account as the department continues to consider its options.

[Virginia Myers]