Senate Republicans To Boycott Hearing On Subprime Schools

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, led by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), has been holding a series of hearings looking at the for-profit college industry. As ThinkProgress has been documenting, these subprime schools collect millions in taxpayer subsidies while leaving their students crippled with debt and with bleak job prospects. The schools pay their CEOs millions, yet count on the government for up to 90 percent of their revenue. (For more background on this issue, see our primer, “For-profits, not students.”)

Harkin has used his chairmanship of the HELP committee to uncover some very unsavory practices at subprime schools, including documents describing the “pain funnel” — a series of questions used by for-profit recruiters to make prospective students feel so bad about themselves that they sign up for classes. This particular hearing will focus on the debt level of students who graduate from for-profit schools, but only Democrats will be listening:

Republican members of the Senate committee won’t attend the hearing because it will examine only for-profit colleges, rather than public and nonprofit institutions, according to a letter that Wyoming Senator Michael Enzi, the senior Republican on the education committee, sent to Harkin today.

“We agree that the rising cost of higher education, student debt and student outcomes are issues that warrant the attention of Congress,” Enzi said in the letter. “However, these problems exist throughout all sectors of higher education.”

Student debt at all levels of higher education is undoubtedly a concern. After all, the average student debt for a bachelor’s degree is now about $22,900, and the class of 2011 will be the most indebted ever.

But these numbers are even worse for students who attend for-profit colleges. One-quarter of students at for-profit colleges borrow more than $40,000, compared with just five percent of public college graduates. The median debt of for-profit graduates — $31,190 — is nearly four times as high as the median public school student’s debt and more than twice as high as the average debt of a private college attendee.

This is an issue worth examining, but the Senate GOP is simply going to pull a no-show. The HELP committe’s ranking member, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), received more than $40,000 in donations from subprime schools (to both his campaign and his leadership PAC) during the last election cycle.