Obama Singles Out For-Profit Colleges and Law Schools for Criticism

August 23, 2013

[Updated (8/24/2013, 7:36 a.m.) with coverage of Lackawanna College event.]

President Obama took a swipe at law schools and for-profit colleges on Friday, the second day of his college bus tour, suggesting that legal education could be just as effective if it took two years rather than three, and assailing proprietary colleges that leave students in debt and ill prepared for a job.

At some for-profit colleges, students are "loaded down with enormous debt," said Mr. Obama, speaking at a Binghamton University town-hall event. "They can't find a job. They default. The taxpayer ends up holding the bag. Their credit is ruined, and the for-profit institution is making out like a bandit. That's a problem."

Mr. Obama, who has tended to leave direct public criticism of for-profit-college abuses to others in his administration, also cited his concern over the treatment of military veterans and service members. "They've been preyed upon very badly by some of these for-profit institutions," he said, adding that a special task force now exists "to look out for members of the armed forces who were being manipulated."

Mr. Obama, whose comments came in response to a question from an audience member who identified himself as a writing instructor at Syracuse University, said some for-profit colleges were seeking out veterans to take improper advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. They saw "there was a whole bunch of money that the federal government was committed to making sure that our veterans got a good education, and they started advertising to these young people, signing them up, getting them to take a bunch of loans, but they weren't delivering a good product."

The president said the proposed new college-rating system and higher-education plan that he unveiled on Thursday could help to ensure that all students and taxpayers get value for their money. "There are probably more problems in the for-profit sector on this than there are in the traditional non-for-profit colleges, universities, and technical schools, but it's a problem across the board," he said. "And the way to solve it is to make sure that we've got ways to measure what's happening and we can weed out some of the folks that are engaging in bad practices."

'Brutal' Cuts

Mr. Obama's two-day bus tour included stops at Binghamton and another State University of New York campus, in Buffalo, along with Lackawanna College, in Scranton, Pa.

His comments about eliminating the third year of law school also were a response to a question, from a computer-science faculty member who asked about improving affordability while preserving quality in higher education. A former law professor himself, Mr. Obama said law schools, which now face mounting criticism for enrolling students in high-cost programs while the legal job market is diminishing, "probably would be wise" to think about compressing their curricula.

By the third year, students would be "better off clerking or practicing in a firm, even if they weren't getting paid that much," Mr. Obama said. "That step alone would reduce the cost for the student." He said approaches like that at graduate schools might also work at the undergraduate level.

In his appearance later on Friday at Lackawanna College, Mr. Obama criticized what he called "brutal" cuts in state support for higher education in Pennsylvania, whose Republican governor, Tom Corbett, is running for re-election next year.

"States have been cutting back on their higher-education budgets," Mr. Obama said. "And let’s face it, here in Pennsylvania there have been brutal cuts to not just higher education, but education, generally."

Pushing states to maintain their spending on higher education was among the proposals the president unveiled in a speech on Thursday at the University at Buffalo.

For its part, the Corbett administration says the cuts were a natural result of the end of the federal stimulus program. "If the president is looking for someone to blame for education cuts, he should grab a mirror," said Mike Barley, manager of Mr. Corbett's re-election campaign, in a statement quoted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It's his one-time funds from the failed stimulus package that artificially increased the education budget to unsustainable levels."