STURTEVANT — A U.S. Deptartment of Education rule-making hearing sparked a vocal group of state legislators, union leaders and educators on Thursday at Gateway Technical College’s iMET Center.

The hearing was one of three held nationwide. It is intended to establish a negotiated rule-making committee to prepare proposed regulations from the Federal Student Aid programs authorized under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965.

The hearing arrived as student debt — the nation’s second largest form of debt — tops a whopping $1.5 trillion.

“We were told that student debt was good debt and this mortgage on our future would lead to a better life,” state Rep. Greta Neubauer, D-Racine said. “It is clear this system has gone terribly wrong.”

The hearings also took place Sept. 6 in Washington, D.C., and on Tuesday in New Orleans.

State educators discussed accreditation and integrity of higher education while attacking the initiatives and overall decision-making of the Betsy Devos-led Department of Education.

A federal judge ruled on Thursday that DeVos’ delay of a key student borrower protection rule was improper and unlawful. U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss sided with attorneys general from 18 states and the District of Columbia, who sued DeVos after she froze an Obama-era rule known as Borrower Defense to Repayment.

The rule is intended to help students receive debt forgiveness if they were cheated by what have been deemed diploma-mill, predatory institutions such as ITT Tech, Everest College and Sanford Brown.

“These are schools with well-documented records of defrauding students,” said Lisa Conley, president of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 212.

“They lured these students, most of whom came from the most-impoverished ZIP codes in our area, into enrolling and taking out huge loans only to shut their doors when the balance sheets didn’t show high enough profits.

“In the end, they left students in a lurch with nothing but credits that didn’t transfer, enormous debts and, worst of all, broken dreams.”

Jay Johnson, president of the Gateway Technical Education Association, read a letter submitted by student Mai McCarthy. She was billed over $15,000 for two semesters of non-transferable credits from ITT Technical Institute before enrolling at Milwaukee Area Technical College and UW-Parkside.

Over a decade later, McCarthy said she is still receiving bills from the for-profit institute.

“As a young, vulnerable high school student, ITT Technical Institute recruited me,” McCarthy wrote in the letter.

“Working through the hardships while trying to advance myself to get ahead and find employment, the school deceptively promised quick employment, flexible schedules, transferrable credits and a brighter future without disclosing my financial liability.”

Under DeVos’ rewrite of the debt-relief plan, student borrowers would be required to submit more evidence of their school’s misconduct and prove more-difficult facts in order to get debt relief.

Department of Education documents show that DeVos’ plan — set to go into effect in July — could save the government $12.7 billion over a 10-year period compared to the one introduced by the Obama Administration.

“Students and borrowers are not asking for much,” said Analise Eicher, program director of the Madison-based One Wisconsin Now.

“They are asking to be treated fairly in a system that does not treat them fairly. Unfortunately, the DeVos Department of Education and the (Wisconsin Gov. Scott) Walker administration are moving to make the problems worse, not better.”

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