Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and colleagues Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced Wednesday the "Protecting Students from Worthless Degrees Act," aimed at making it more difficult for colleges to take students’ and taxpayers’ dollars for unaccredited and unlicensed degree programs that leave graduates unable to work in their fields of study.
Under a loophole in federal financial aid laws, schools that are institutionally accredited may offer individual programs that lack state licensing or programmatic accreditation, even when they are required in order for their graduates to enter the occupation they were prepared for, Merkley's office said in a news release.
"Students enter these programs believing that they are preparing for a job in that field, only to discover after graduating, often with heavy debt loads, that they are not qualified to work in that field or take an occupational exam," the release stated.
The Protecting Students from Worthless Degrees Act would require programs offered by institutions to meet any state licensure requirements and programmatic accreditation that is necessary for entering an occupation in order to receive taxpayer-funded tuition such as Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, G.I. Bill benefits, or Department of Defense Tuition Assistance funds.
“Higher education should be a path to the American Dream, but that dream is shattered if when students graduate, they find that their degrees are worthless,” said Merkley. “A college that claims to prepare a student for a specific job should have the accreditation needed so that those degrees are actually worth something in the job market. It’s common sense to say that taxpayers have no place funding programs that hurt students more than they help.”
“I’m for choice and opportunity in higher education, but we cannot be enablers of debt without empowerment,” Senator Mikulski said. “It’s appalling that schools are providing students with worthless degrees while leaving families buried under debt.
"It’s wrong for families and the federal government to make investments in higher education and be left with nothing to show for it. I’m cosponsoring the Protecting Students from Worthless Degrees Act to ensure that higher education programs meet the accreditation or licensure requirements ,so when students graduate, they are qualified to be hired for the job they’ve prepared for.”
“Most Americans would be outraged to learn that their tax dollars are going to education programs that do not meet the basic requirements needed for their graduates to enter their chosen profession,” said Harkin. “It simply does not make sense for students to waste their federal financial aid and for veterans to use their hard-earned education benefits to attend a school that offers worthless degrees. This legislation will help ensure that students graduate with the qualifications necessary to find a job in the field that they studied.”
Non-accredited programs, many of which are offered by for-profit institutions, often promise to prepare students for very specific careers, such as assistant or technician jobs in medical fields.
But in many states, students are not able to be employed in these jobs without a properly accredited degree, so students must then go further into debt and complete a second degree to actually be eligible for the jobs. Veterans with G.I. Bill benefits are particularly targets of these programs.
The Protecting Students from Worthless Degrees Act is endorsed by the Military Officers Association of America, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Student Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans of America, the National Consumer Law Center on behalf of its low-income clients, Campus Progress, Education Trust, The Institute for College Access and Success, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and Young Invincibles.
Earlier this week, Senator Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, unveiled a broad report on the practices of for-profit colleges. The report found widespread problems at some for-profit colleges, which specifically target taxpayer-funded tuition support.