Nearly every 2016 presidential candidate, of both parties, has spoken out about the burgeoning student loan crisis in recent months. It’s a vital issue for young voters whose support the candidates know can make or break their bid for office.
But as candidates promise to improve college affordability and accessibility, some of them also have developed cozy relationships with for-profit schools that are accused by the federal government of trapping unwary students in a cycle of high debt. The disparity has seen advocacy groups question the candidates' true stances and priorities on college affordability.
“We can’t tell students that college is essential and then stand by and watch as obstacles like predatory lending and exorbitant tuition fees undermine access to the American dream,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement last month. “It’s just not right.”
Higher education has become a central theme for Democratic presidential candidates like front-runner Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, both of whom have released proposals aimed at reducing students’ debt load. Republican candidates have mostly opposed these free college models, instead suggesting ways to expand the types of options students have.
These discussions about the rising cost of higher education -- and accessibility to it -- have coincided with a recent wave of scrutiny of the for-profit college system. As enrollment in for-profits has risen, several states are investigating claims that the institutions aggressively recruited, misled and issued predatory loans to their students.
For-profit colleges have also been criticized for making students pay higher prices, which can lead to greater debt later on. Tuition, room and board at public colleges in 2013 totaled about $15,022 annually. The same expenses at for-profit schools added up to $23,158. The average public college student in 2012 had $25,550 in debt, compared to the average for-profit student with $39,950, according to the the Institute for College Access and Success.
'A Quality Education'
Democratic presidential candidates, especially former Secretary of State Clinton, have been vocal about their disdain for for-profit colleges. Clinton said in August that she would “strengthen and defend” the gainful employment regulations instituted under President Barack Obama. These regulations require colleges to prove their graduates are making enough money after graduation to steadily pay off their loans.
Clinton’s New College Compact, which would cost $350 billion over 10 years, seeks to free students from having to borrow money to pay for tuition. States would get federal grants in return for increasing their investment in higher education, CNN reported. “We need to make a quality education affordable and available to anyone who is willing to work for it -- without saddling them with decades of debt," Clinton said.
At the same time, Clinton’s husband served for five years as honorary chancellor of Laureate International Universities, a for-profit chain. The group paid former President Bill Clinton about $16 million before he stepped down in April.
Clinton herself was paid $225,000 for speaking at a 2014 event sponsored by Academic Partnerships, a for-profit education company that helps public and private not-for-profit universities move degree programs online, the Miami Herald reported. Her campaign did not return a request for comment.
'A Lot Of Young People Are Stuck'
After Clinton's big education announcement, the Republican National Committee sent out an email to reporters with the subject line: “Clinton’s College Hypocrisy Tour Rolls On." But the GOP also has a complicated relationship with for-profit schools.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has hinted at his presidential campaign's intent to release an education plan in coming weeks that “will dramatically create an environment of affordability without breaking the bank,” Bloomberg reported. Bush added that he supports many kinds of postsecondary education, including community colleges and technical programs.
“This is hugely important to our success,” he said, according to Bloomberg. “A lot of young people are stuck. They can’t get a degree because it costs too much, the student loans are way too much.”
But in 2014, Bush gave a speech before the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, or APSCU, the trade organization for for-profit colleges. He was paid $51,000 and at one point slammed the Obama administration’s gainful employment regulations as a “sledgehammer to the entire field of higher education," according to the Huffington Post.
Bush also maintained relationships with Arthur Keiser, who created the Keiser University for-profit chain, and Randy Best, the chairman of Academic Partnerships. These friendships started in the 2000s and continue to this day, the Miami Herald reported. Best donated $100,000 to Bush’s campaign in March.
Bush’s press office declined to answer specific questions about his stance on for-profit education.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has frequently mentioned his personal experience with student loans on the presidential campaign trail. During law school at the University of Miami, he racked up $150,000 in debt -- a sum he struggled to pay off despite living with his parents after graduation. Rubio made his final student loan payment three years ago.
To combat this, he’s advocated for creating a new, independent accreditation system to break up the higher education “cartel” and enable low-cost innovators to compete with traditional four-year schools. Rubio has also backed the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which would give students and families information about graduation rates and average earnings data before they choose a school.
“We need to change how we provide degrees, how those degrees are accessed, how much that access costs, how those costs are paid, and even how those payments are determined,” Reuters reported Rubio said.
But last year, when the federal Education Department began to restrict the for-profit chain Corinthian Colleges’ access to aid as a result of pending investigations into fraud, Rubio stuck up for the school. He wrote to top department officials to ask them to “demonstrate leniency” on the company.
Corinthian sold most of its campuses in 2014 and closed down the rest in April after being hit by fines for misrepresenting job placement rates. Before that, it donated $27,600 over five years to Rubio.
When asked about the donations, a spokesman for Rubio directed International Business Times to a 2014 policy speech where he discussed the need for better accreditation and more widespread vocational programs.
'Good-Paying Jobs For Graduates'
Another leading Republican presidential hopeful, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, often touts the fact that he froze tuition at the state’s public colleges for two years, but he has not presented specific plans for higher education reform.
In his budget plan earlier this year, Walker suggested eliminating the Educational Approval Board, a state agency that oversees for-profit colleges. He also visited the for-profit ITT Technical Institute Center for Career Development in Greenfield, Wisconsin, last summer and said its track record locally was “a positive one.”
Walker’s campaign gave IBT the following statement: “Governor Walker wants to put in place incentives to keep costs low, confront the accreditation cartels that limit options, and improve federal government data so students and families have the information they need to make the best decisions possible. We need to make sure students are getting the skills they need to fill open jobs in our economy, and we need a thriving economy providing good-paying jobs for graduates.”
It continued: "As governor, he froze college tuition at Wisconsin colleges four years in a row. Others -- specifically Hillary Clinton -- continue to offer the same bait and switch as President Obama, making promises to students while delivering higher tuition costs and tax increases.”
Other Republican presidential candidates’ were linked to the for-profit higher education industry as well. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee accepted a position in 2010 as chancellor of the new Victory University Foundation, which raised money for the now-defunct for-profit college. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie used to be a lobbyist with Dughi, Hewit and Palatucci, a firm that represented the University of Phoenix. The APSCU political action committee donated $1,000 to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in 2012.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal wrote a 2014 column in the Washington Examiner criticizing Obama's gainful employment regulations for discouraging “non-traditional schools from taking chances on students, and programs, that many elite schools wouldn’t even bother considering in the first place.” His brother, lawyer Nikesh Jindal, previously represented the APSCU.
Then there's real estate mogul Donald Trump, who has not addressed higher education reform. He owned Trump University, a for-profit college that was never accredited.
Are Voters Paying Attention?
But while groups like the American Federation of Teachers and liberal media outlets may criticize these affiliations, such relationships probably won’t matter to the average voter, said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political newsletter out of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He likened the issue to the Iran nuclear deal -- a hot topic in political circles but not necessarily to the general public.
Unless a major scandal within the industry breaks before next November, “I would not say it’s a major focus of this cycle’s campaign,” he said.
Some voters, however, said they are paying close attention. "It matters a lot who the president is,” Matthew Boulay, a former U.S. Marine who fought in Iraq and is executive director of the Veterans’ Student Loan Relief Fund, told the Miami Herald. “And anyone who’s taking these schools’ money should be suspect.”