When Comparing Colleges, It Would Help To Know If A School Is Under Investigation

Many consumers thinking of pursuing a higher education weigh the pros and the cons of a specific college: tuition, convenience, available areas of study. Last month, the Department of Education announced it would make the college shopping experience a little easier for prospective students by creating a consumer-facing online college comparison system. While the tool will no doubt be helpful, consumer advocates warn that, as it stands, the system will be missing a vital information: whether or not schools are party to investigation, lawsuits or settlements over harmful and deceptive practices.

Today, nearly 50 consumer advocacy groups sent a letter [PDF] to Education Secretary Arne Duncan urging the department to include publicly available data regarding federal or state investigations, lawsuits, or settlements in the upcoming comparison tool.

“Students deserve to know when a college’s practices are under heightened scrutiny from federal and state regulators, just as investors in publicly traded for-profit colleges are required to be notified of such events,” the letter states. “Students should not be kept in the dark.”

According to the signed organizations – which include The Institute for College Access & Success, National Consumer Law Center, Center for Responsible Lending and our colleagues at Consumer Union – providing such information could help steer students away from potentially harmful and deceptive educational institutions.

The groups contend that if such data had been readily available previously, fewer students might have enrolled at the now-defunct for-profit chain Corinthian Colleges‘ Heald College, Everest University and WyoTech campuses.

CCI, which closed its campuses and filed for bankruptcy this spring, had been party to several federal and state investigations and lawsuits during it year-long downfall.

The letter points to the Department’s prior determination that details regarding scrutiny of a school can be valuable to consumers.

The groups cite, Education Under Secretary Ted Mitchell’s statement from March that data – like the Heightened Cash Monitoring list – can serve “as a caution light” for prospective students.

“It means we are watching these institutions more closely to ensure that institutions are using federal student aid in a way that is accountable to both students and taxpayers,” Mitchell stated at the time.

However, the advocacy groups say that details aren’t communicated clearly to consumers, but “a consumer-focused college comparison tool is the appropriate place to do so.”

“We believe all students have a right to this information and need it in order to make informed decisions about where to enroll,” the letter states.

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