If a Blacksmithing School Doesn't Make You Sign Away Your Legal Rights, Why Do For-Profit Colleges?

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My children do not usually experience temperatures of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, but a few years ago I decided to subject them to exactly that by enrolling them in a metalworking class at a cool school called The Crucible, in Oakland, California. Their experience with molten iron was spectacular, and the injuries (yes, there were some) were minor.

The blacksmithing class came to mind as I was working on a new report with my colleague Tariq Habash about the fine-print contracts used by various colleges and trade schools. We found that for-profit colleges are routinely slipping clauses into enrollment contracts that take away students' rights to take grievances to court, or preventing them from allying with other students or even to discuss their situations publicly. Our report found that these efforts to deny students' their legal rights is almost unheard of at public and other nonprofit institutions.

Which led me to wonder what students and parents at The Crucible are required to sign when they are partaking in blacksmith and other classes that are inherently dangerous. The answer is that they are asked to sign only the usual liability waiver. The school does not pull out all the stops to keep complaints secret or to stop customers from going to court if they feel that the school lied or was negligent. Even at a school that has students working with metals at extremely high temperatures.

Why do for-profit colleges feel they need to put a contractual straitjacket on their students? It turns out that many of the companies requiring students to sign these contracts are the same ones found to be lying, cheating, and stealing their way to revenue and growth for their investors. While they pretend that the restrictive clauses are helping to clarify procedures and streamline dispute resolution, the real purpose of the clauses is to create maneuvering room for more fraud and abuse. The effect of the fine print is to hide what these companies are doing, to keep the authorities at bay for as long as possible.

Our research revealed something else, too. The companies that are rigging the justice system against students are the ones that are financed primarily by federal student loans and Pell Grants. For-profit schools that are focused on serving paying customers -- rather than vacuuming up as much tax money as possible -- do not usually feel the need to force students to sign away their rights. The only example we found was a school that trains students to trade stocks over the Internet, twelve sessions costing $17,500 -- a model that looked similar to Trump University, but with a forced arbitration clause that would prevent any disappointed customers from going to court.

The Obama Administration can stop colleges from taking away students' rights. Secretary of Education John King should move forward with a regulation that makes it clear that colleges financed by tax dollars must not hide behind restrictive covenants that prevent students and communities from holding the colleges accountable for their actions.