Policy

Get Rid of Bad Schools, Sez Education Chief

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duncan, a gale of creative destruction on the court

Unfortunately, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wasn't talking about (finally) letting the nation's crappiest public schools fail. He was talking about something else altogether:

While the Obama administration seeks to increase oversight of for-profit schools, it acknowledges their significant role. Education Secretary Arne Duncan last month urged the sector "to get rid of bad actors."

In most industries, getting rid of bad actors is easy, and doesn't require much concerted effort or direction from Cabinet-level secretaries. The gale of creative destruction is already raging in the private sector. The problem: sandbags full of federal money, in the form of Pell grants and subsidized loans, are keeping bad actors in higher education from being blown out to sea. (Whew. Sorry about the metaphor abuse, gang. I'm done now.)

New rules are being considered on for-profit colleges:

New federal rules, expected to be formally proposed in coming days, would tighten oversight of the industry. One much-debated proposal would cut federal aid to for-profit schools in certain cases if graduates spend more than 8 percent of their starting salaries to repay loans.

It's appealing, in the abstract, to get federal money out of at least one gosh darned part of the education sector. But if the central concern is loan burden on graduates, focusing on the for-profit status of the schools in question is a red herring. Taking on massive debt to pay for higher education is hardly a problem exclusive to for-profit colleges. Heck, the "I can't live in Manhattan on the salary I'm earning from my debt-funded liberal arts degree" story is practically an independent genre these days. All kinds of schools use federal money to inflate tuition figures and pad the bottom line. The schools aren't the ones to blame, and non-profit private and public schools are just ask guilty in this regard.

Duncan is actually a pretty reasonable guy. He said this, too:

"Among the for-profits, phenomenal players are out there making a huge difference in helping people take the next step in the economic ladder."

But it's not really his call. Instead, that honor belongs to the likes of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) who "plans this month to begin hearings on the industry, examining recruiting practices and student loan default rates."