Harkin’s Bill Would Cut Off Aid to Unaccredited Programs

Senator Tom Harkin has introduced a piece of legislation that would prohibit colleges and universities that lack appropriate accreditation from receiving federal student aid funds. Titled Protecting Students from Worthless Degrees Act, the bill requires that an institution has the accreditation needed to allow students to take licensing exams in their fields before being eligible to receive federal funds, including veterans benefits.

Harkin explained that he was motivated to introduce the bill by the results of his two-year investigation into the for-profit college industry — and specifically by the stories of students who had received diplomas and certificates that didn’t qualify them to be employed in their chosen professions. Those who had graduated from Bridgepoint Education’s Ashford University with teaching degrees weren’t eligible to teach, while students who enrolled in and completed Concord Law School, an online-only program owned by Kaplan Higher Education, later found out that the law school was unaccredited and that they’d only be eligible to take the bar exam in California. Only 15% of graduates of non-accredited law schools pass the bar exam.

The current law allows schools that are institutionally accredited to offer programs that lack specific state licensing or programming accreditation, even when it is required in order for graduates to enter that particular occupation.

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 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.

Harkin has already rounded up several high-profile endorsements including the Military Officers Association of America, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Student Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans of America and the National Consumer Law Center, among others. The large number of veterans organizations are backing his effort because, according to numbers uncovered during the investigation into for-profit colleges, veterans are specifically targeted for these kinds of programs.

Typically, veterans enroll in these schools in order to retrain for a civilian career only to find out upon graduation that their degree isn’t properly accredited and they’re not eligible to be employed in the field that they’ve spent, in some cases, more than $25,000 to train in.