It’s Time for More Cops on the Beat

By Seth Frotman | April 8, 2019

For the past two years, this country has seen huge rollbacks of protections for consumers—from attacks on servicemembers’ rights to rules that protect borrowers of color from discrimination. Each time we think we’ve hit rock bottom and start believing that it can’t get any worse, the Trump Administration pulls out a stronger shovel.

And when it comes to students, the Trump education officials just keep digging. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) under Betsy DeVos effectively shut down the team tasked with investigating abuses in higher education. Betsy DeVos slammed shut courthouse doors on borrowers ripped off by predatory players. She pulled out every stop to reduce oversight of for-profit schools. She rolled back accountability for predatory schools that leave borrowers with mounds of debt and worthless degrees.

Betsy DeVos is placing corporations above consumers—filling positions of power with industry insiders.

The mere fact that Betsy DeVos—or anyone for that matter—can single-handedly take these actions and leave students with little recourse shows that the system we built has failed. This system that entrusts millions of students and 44 million existing student loan borrowers to the whims of any Secretary of Education is wholly inadequate. After the repeated disasters of Corinthian Colleges, ITT Technical Institutes, Education Corporation of America, Education Management Corporation and Dream Center, Vatterott, and ACICS, it is clear that we cannot simply rely on ED to “do the right thing.”

We need more cops on the beat to protect students and student loan borrowers.

Any serious attempt to protect students and student loan borrowers in a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) should give states and individual students the tools necessary to demand justice and accountability. If not, we are simply building upon a system that is beholden to whomever sits in the 7th floor of 400 Maryland Avenue. That is certainly not a bet I am willing to take.

And this is exactly what the PROTECT Students Act addresses. Authored by Senators Hassan and Durbin, PROTECT gives state law enforcement officials the right to enforce key provisions of the HEA. So instead of hoping that the Secretary of Education—any Secretary—takes action, it ensures that those on the front lines have additional tools and avenues to protect students from the predatory players that are all too prevalent in this market.

The bill also empowers individuals by giving them the ability to collectively hold schools directly accountable in a court of law. PROTECT ensures borrowers can exercise their enforcement rights by banning schools from leaning on pre-dispute arbitration clauses to close the courthouse doors on students who have been cheated. These “rip-off clauses”—often found in the fine print of enrollment contracts at for-profit schools—allow schools to limit students’ rights when they have a dispute.

It is clear that the failures across higher education are hurting millions of students throughout the country. They will not be solved by simply enhancing ED authorities. If we wish to end today’s student debt crisis and prevent the next one, we must build a new framework—one that creates enforceable rights for millions of people, one that recognizes the untapped power of states, and most importantly, one that recognizes that we cannot and should not simply rely on the Secretary of Education to save us.

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Seth Frotman is the Executive Director of the Student Borrower Protection Center. He previously served as Assistant Director and Student Loan Ombudsman at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where he led a government-wide effort to crack down on abuses by the student loan industry and protect borrowers.