Then Bush and Congressman John Boehner opened the door even wider, working to repeal a rule that required schools to educate at least 50 percent of their students on-campus. It gave birth to an online gold rush, with for-profits flooding the Internet. Last year, 6 million students enrolled.

The industry had discovered the value of paying protection money to Congress. It spent $16 million on lobbying last year alone, buying a dream team of former officials that includes former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt and no less than fourteen former congressmen.

"I didn't know when I got into the issue of for-profit schools that it was the best way for me to have a reunion with every member of Congress as they parade through the door, all representing these schools," says U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, who's held hearings investigating for-profits. "There is so much money on the table they can afford to hire everybody."

Barmak Nassirian, former official with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers: “Over-advertise, oversell, overcharge and under deliver. They found a system where the pitch goes to one guy and the bill to someone else.”
Courtesy Barmak Nassirian
Barmak Nassirian, former official with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers: “Over-advertise, oversell, overcharge and under deliver. They found a system where the pitch goes to one guy and the bill to someone else.”
According to Suzannne Lawrence, who worked as a recruiter at Argosy University’s online division, the pressure to recruit students prompted all sorts of illicit shenanigans, including falsifying documents.
Courtesy Suzanne Lawrence
According to Suzannne Lawrence, who worked as a recruiter at Argosy University’s online division, the pressure to recruit students prompted all sorts of illicit shenanigans, including falsifying documents.

Needless to say, Durbin hasn't gotten far with his probe. He's found some support among fellow Democrats, but not a single Republican bothered to attend his hearings.

"I don't want to hear their sermons from the mount about wasting federal money when they won't even take a look at these obscenely subsidized for-profit schools," he says. "If they were talking about food stamps, they would cut people off in a second for this level of fraud. This is a wasteful expenditure of hard-earned consumer dollars to some of the wealthiest people in America, and that has to come to an end."

Congress' shrillest Republican voices on waste refuse to even look at the industry. Despite sitting on the Senate committee examining for-profit fraud, Rand Paul of Kentucky has expressed no curiosity about this money pit. Nor have fellow committee members Lamar Alexander from Tennessee or deficit hawk John McCain of Arizona. Not one responded to repeated interview requests for this story.

President Obama has stepped into the breach, though with customary timidity. In July the Department of Education made it once again unequivocally illegal to base salespeople's pay on enrollment. But other reforms were so watered down they were meaningless. Taxpayers should probably be thankful Obama did anything at all. At hearings last year, the Iowa Democratic senator Tom Harkin called it the most intense lobbying campaign he'd seen in his 32 years in Washington.

To truly appreciate how weak the final regulations were, consider this: The day they were revealed, for-profit stocks soared. The stock prices of EDMC and ITT Tech in particular increased by 20 percent. In one day.

The government ignores the problem at the country's peril. Total student-loan debt, now over $1 trillion, has surpassed credit-card debt. These burdens will limit students' ability to contribute to our consumer economy for years to come. Worse, unlike an underwater mortgage, Congress has made it illegal for people to walk away from student loans they can't pay. The debt will follow them the rest of their lives.

"This is basically a parasitic industry that is preying upon not just some of the most vulnerable members of our society, but the best of these most vulnerable members, people who listen to the rhetoric we feed them and who are actually attempting to better themselves," says Nassirian. "This is an industry that takes people's hopes and dreams and cashes them out."

And they won't stop until they've emptied the till.

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