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Misplaced outrage on student debt

In a story about Indiana Tech's new law school, reporter Devon Haynie notes the histrionic (my description) reaction to the proposal by Above the Law blogger Elie Mystal:

"Does somebody have to die? Does somebody have to commit suicide? Does somebody have to leave a suicide note that reads, 'I just couldn't go on paying off the debts I incurred from going to this law school?' " Mystal wrote in May. "You're not supposed to lead prospective students to financial ruin just because they're stupid enough to follow you."

Mystal's outrage might be sincere, but if unchecked student debt is his concern, it seems to me it would be much better directed at the proprietary schools targeting high school graduates who qualify for federal and state student aid. The debt they take on in the case of default falls to taxpayers. After all, prospective law students are seasoned consumers of higher education and should be as capable of weighing employment prospects against borrowing as they are of scoring well on the LSAT.

I would never describe students at for-profit schools as stupid, as Mystal suggests of prospective law students, but the students who attend for-profit colleges are often first-generation college students. They might not be aware that their student aid will go further and give them better job prospects if it's used at a state university, accredited independent university or at a community college.

Fortunately, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller is aware of the tremendous risk some proprietary schools represent. His office announced today it has filed a complaint in a whistleblower lawsuit against Education Management Corp. The complaint alleges the for-profit company, which operates five Brown Mackie College campuses and the The Art Institute of Indianapolis, collected $12 million in state financial aid by making "false claims and representations to the state."

"Paying recruiters incentives based on the number of students they enroll is a violation both of federal aid regulations as well as the responsibility to the students that the school serves," Zoeller said in a news release. "This violation renders the company ineligible to receive funds under the Indiana financial aid programs, and using the False Claims Act we will seek to hold EDMC accountable by making it pay civil penalties."

If the courts agree, Indiana taxpayers will have every right to be outraged about the financial burden Brown Mackie and other proprietary schools have placed not only on vulnerable students, but on the taxpayers themelves.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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