Florida Lawmakers Change Stance on For-Profit Colleges, Propose to Help Students

Policy
Posted By Monica Harvin on December 11, 2015 at 12:30 pm
Florida Lawmakers Change Stance on For-Profit Colleges, Propose to Help Students
Florida State Capitol Buildings in Tallahassee

The sheer magnitude of claims successfully brought against for-profit colleges is leading even states that have long supported the industry and passed legislation in its favor to take a step back and consider bills that would protect students attending for-profit colleges and increase industry regulation.

In the wake of the closing of Dade Medical College and the recent guilty plea by its owner, Ernesto Perez, to using campaign contributions to secure legislative support for the school, it seems the Florida legislature can no longer feign ignorance nor offer unfettered support for the for-profit education industry.

Florida lawmakers changing their minds

In an interview with the Miami Herald, State Representative Erik Fresen, a past supporter of legislation favoring for-profit colleges, Chair of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee and recipient of awards on behalf of the industry, says, “Too many ill-intended folks have seen way too big of an opportunity to get into something to make a quick buck… I do think that is a problem, [but] I don’t think private education is a problem.”

He holds that the issue is “at a scale where it is a major problem and we have to address it” and “the practices that they [for-profit colleges] perpetuate, they do so, certainly, ill-intended…because the system allows them to. The system is so easy, it’s so easy to be gamed.”

A bill filed by State Senator Oscar Braynon II to repeal a 2013 law, which allowed for unaccredited physical therapy assistant programs, shows another change of heart from a past supporter. Sen. Braynon, in fact, helped get the 2013 law passed in the first place.

According to the Miami Herald investigation, no other state permits unaccredited physical therapy assistant programs. The call for repeal comes in response to claims by students of Dade Medical’s $40,050 program, who say they weren’t told of federal rules that would prevent them from treating Medicare or Medicaid patients, as well as the struggle of finding jobs, in general, with an unaccredited degree. Students studying at Kaplan University’s nutritionist program have also found themselves facing similar obstacles, as the school’s degrees do not qualify them to take national certification tests.

Legislative action against for-profit colleges

One of Rep. Fresen’s Miami colleagues, State Representative José Javier Rodríguez, has also filed bills two years consecutively to increase regulation of the for-profit education industry in Florida. According to the Miami Herald, “the Rodríguez bill would shut down schools with student loan default rates over 40 percent, or over 30 percent for three consecutive years.”

Rodriguez says some of his House colleagues believe “the state shouldn’t regulate for-profits because they are private businesses…[though] for-profit colleges get nearly 90 percent of their revenue from taxpayers.” The Senate counterpart to Rodriguez’s bill, however, is moving swiftly through committee meetings.

The Rodriguez House bill has also secured the support of professional organizations like the Florida Nurses Association because of “concerns over the quality of some nursing programs,” says the Miami Herald. The number of schools across the state has dramatically risen while, at the same time, passage rates for the state nursing exam dropped by almost 16 percentage points between 2009 and 2014.

In addition, State Senator Jeff Brandes has filed a bill that would increase oversight of the for-profit education sector and “require new schools to post a bond of at least $100,000 – providing a pot of money that can be used to help displaced students.”

Legacy of widespread support for for-profit colleges

In an earlier report, the Miami Herald outlined the immense reach of the for-profit education industry in Florida, which serves nearly 1 in 5 Florida higher education students – significantly more than the 12 percent nationwide. The reports asserts that while “other states adopted laws cracking down on colleges and their excesses,” Florida legislators were passing “at least 15 laws that fueled the schools’ growth” and collecting “more than $1 million in campaign contributions from those same institutions.”

And where states like New York and Illinois have secured multi-million dollar settlements and loan forgiveness for students, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has only “negotiated one small settlement of that type, obtaining $83,000 to be split among 39 students.”

Now, it seems that scandals involving for-profit colleges across the state, coupled with large-scale, national closures and decisions against for-profit education companies operating in Florida, have served as the wake-up call to Florida legislators to rethink their stance toward this industry. The ultimate passage of multiple proposed legislations to put in place some protections for the Florida students who attend these schools will serve as the decisive signal that for-profit colleges no longer have free rein in the sunshine state.

Monica Harvin
Monica is a GoodCall contributing editor, covering personal finance and education. She's also GoodCall's diversity expert, with a master's degree in Latin American studies from UCLA and bachelor's degree in history from the University of Florida.

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