As student debt balloons over $1.1 trillion, it casts a shadow over the start of the school year and the future of higher education. But for many young veterans it signals a major and immediate crisis.
Between 1944 and 1956, the GI Bill helped 7.8 million veterans returning home from war go to school, buy homes and transition back to civilian life. But today, due to loopholes in federal legislation, for-profit colleges use federal funds made possible by the post 9/11 GI Bill to deliver sub-par education, leaving veterans with unsustainable debts, non-transferrable college credits and few job prospects. Worse, according to an investigation by Senator Tom Harkin, “More than 1 in 5 students enrolling in a for-profit college default within three years of entering repayment on their student loans.”The problem isn’t the GI bill — which is arguably one of the most successful public policies in our country’s history — it’s the growing influence of money in politics that allows for-profit colleges to use lobbying muscle and campaign contributions to tip the scales in their favor while students and veterans suffer and taxpayers foot the bill.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, for-profit colleges have donated over $7.4 million through PACs and individual contributions since 2010. In that same time period, they spent an additional $28.7 million lobbying congress. A small investment for an industry that receives up to 86 percent of their revenues from federal taxpayer dollars.
Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, sums up the problem: “The for-profit college industry is the paradigmatic case of a relatively small industry making huge political expenditures to shape policy so that it can claim massive public subsidies. Making matters worse is that much of the industry’s business model involves ripping off students and veterans. It’s inconceivable that the for-profit college industry would be able to operate as it does if it were not leveraging so much political influence.”
On August 8, 2013, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America helped give voice to the student loan crisis facing veterans in a testimony before Congress:
“Iraq and Afghanistan Marine Corps veteran corporal Anselm Caddell, 29, saw a degree in Criminal Justice as a great foundation for a career in the private and public sector security, an area where he could apply his military experience as an infantryman, team leader, and company casualty evacuation driver. A recruiter for the for-profit Brown Mackie College in Caddell’s native Ohio, sold him on the college. Instead of working toward a brighter future, he found himself in high school level courses and facing a financial services department that seemed determined to drive him into debt. Worst of all, when he’d had enough and tried to transfer to a California community college to finish his degree, he found Brown Mackie had misrepresented its accreditation: he was unable to transfer any of the credits he had earned and needed to start from scratch. Caddell’s expensive — and useless — Brown Mackie education exhausted his eligibility for student loans. As a result, he is now struggling to make ends meet as he repays those loans and continues his education at a California community college, working toward a degree that he feels will offer him a much better chance at the future he envisions.”
Groups like IAVA have set up a fund to help ease the burden of student loan debt on veterans who believe they were deceived by for-profit colleges. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is considering a bill that would ease regulations for for-profit colleges and ensure that they continue to have access to easy money. The chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce committee and co-sponsor of the bill, John Kline (R-MN) pocketed over $209,609 in campaign contributions in 2012 from for-profit colleges.
If we’re going to prevent good policies like the GI Bill from being polluted by special interests, we need a constitutional amendment to declare: 1) Corporations are not people; and 2) Money is not free speech. According to Marge Baker at the People for the American Way, “After years of working with advocates across the country on this issue…the only way to completely reverse the damage done to our democracy by this reckless Court is through amending the Constitution.”
We started StampStampede.org to give people a simple, meaningful way to participate and make a difference. Rather than signing another petition, the Stampede distributes rubber stamps to people to legally and joyfully stamp messages like “Not to Be Used for Bribing Politicians” on our nation’s currency, in order to build the movement to get money out of politics. Each bill is seen approximately 875 times and stays in circulation for an average of 2 1/2 years demonstrating consistent and escalating support for an amendment. Sixteen states have voted in favor of an amendment and over 150 members of Congress support it. The road ahead is tough, but if we work together, we can stop the flow of big money in Washington and reclaim our democracy.
|Ben Cohen is co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and founder and Head Stamper at the StampStampede.org, which aims to build a movement to amend the Constitution to get money out of politics.|
|Edward Erikson teaches in the political science department at University of Massachusetts Amherst and is a senior associate for MacWilliams Sanders Communication.|