Friday, January 6, 2017

Globe University and Minnesota School of Business are closing: We need federal legislation to manage college shutdowns

Globe University and Minnesota School of Business (MSB) began closing their campuses last month. The two for-profit institutions once operated in three states--Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin; but a series of regulatory and court actions brought them down.

In September, a Minnesota court ruled that Globe and MSB committed fraud by inducing students to enroll in their criminal justice programs.  Not long after, the Department of Education cut them off from federal student-aid funding. No for-profit college can survive a month without federal student-loan revenue, so DOE's action amounted to a death sentence for both institutions.

The demise of Globe and MSB follow in a train of college shutdowns over the past couple of years. The casualty lists includes Corinthian Colleges and ITT, two for-profits that declared bankruptcy. St. Catharine College and Dowling College also shut their doors, along with Virginia Intermont College.

DOE has more than 500 colleges on its "heightened cash monitoring" watch list, and many of these schools will shut down within the next three or four years. In a 2015 report, Moody's Investment Services predicted colleges would close at the rate of 15 per year commencing this year.

Now is the time for Congress to pass legislation to protect colleges' former students when the institution they attended shuts down. At a minimum, Congress should do the following:

I. Congress should pass legislation requiring every defunct college to deposit all student records in a central federal depository.

First student records at failed colleges must be preserved. Former students will need access to their official transcripts for decades after their alma mater closes, but how will they get those transcripts 25 years after the institution they attended shut its doors?

Currently, some closing colleges are voluntarily making arrangements to preserve student records. Dowling College, for example, which filed for bankruptcy in 2016, sent its student records to nearby Long Island University.

But not all closing colleges will act as responsibly as Dowling. In particular, colleges that are accused of defrauding their students have no incentive to preserve student records because those records might be used against them in legal proceedings.

Congress needs to adopt legislation that requires every college that receives federal funds to send all student records, including transcripts, to a federal records depository in the event of a closure. And colleges should be required to digitize their student records according to a standardized protocol so that the process of transferring records after a college closes can be done quickly and efficiently.

II. Non-operating colleges should forgive any loans owed to them by former students.

Most nonpublic colleges depend on federal student aid money for the bulk of their revenues, but some also lend money directly to their students.  For example, Globe and MSB loaned money to their students at interest rates as high as 18 percent. According to a Minnesota court decision, the two institutions  loaned money to approximately 6,000 students between 2009 and 2016.

Globe and MSB will be defunct in a matter of weeks, but the loans they made to students are debts they may try to collect. Federal law should require every college that loans money to students to forgive those loans if the college closes. As a matter of simple justice, a college that shuts down shouldn't be chasing after students who owe it money.

III. Congress should ease the path to bankruptcy relief for students who attended for-profit colleges.

Finally, Congress needs to streamline the loan-forgiveness process for students who attend for-profit colleges and received no economic benefit from the experience. It is particularly unjust for students to be on the hook for student loans taken out to attend a for-profit college that closed after being found guilty of fraud.

Under DOE regulations, students can apply to have their student loans discharged if they can make one of two showings: 1) they were induced to enroll based on fraud, or 2) they took out loans to attend a college that closed while they were enrolled or within 120 days of being enrolled.

Unfortunately, the administrative process for resolving discharge applications is slow and entirely inadequate to deal with the potential volume of claims. After all, Corinthian Colleges and ITT, which are both in bankruptcy, have around a half million former students between them.

Currently, the Bankruptcy Code bars debtors from discharging student loans in bankruptcy unless they can show that paying back their loans would create an "undue hardship."  Most bankruptcy courts have interpreted the undue hardship standard harshly, making it incredibly difficult for most college borrowers to clear their student loans through the bankruptcy process.

Congress should pass legislation that eliminates the undue hardship standard for all people who took out loans to attend a for-profit college and wound up broke.  The five-year default rate for a recent cohort of students who attended for-profit colleges is 47 percent--a clear indication that a lot of people got no benefit from attending a for-profit institution.

Conclusion: The Nation faces a swelling tide of college closures and needs an orderly process for shutting down higher education institutions.

One thing is certain: colleges are closing at an accelerating rate; and the Nation need an orderly process to minimize the harm to defunct colleges' former students. Student records must be safeguarded, student debt to failed institutions should be wiped out, and Congress needs to amend the Bankruptcy Code to allow former for-profit college students to obtain bankruptcy relief.

Photo credit: Wisconsin Public Radio


References

Christopher Magan. Globe U. and Minnesota School of Business to start closing campuses. Twin Cities Pioneer Press, December 21, 2016.

Rick Seltzer. Virginia Intermont's campus sale begs question of how colleges close accounts. Inside Higher Ed, January 5, 2017.

State of Minnesota v. Minnesota School of Business, 885 N.W.2d 512 (Minn. Ct. App. 2016).

Alia Wong. Farewell to America's Small Colleges, Atlantic, October 2, 2015.

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