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Richard D.
Democrat IL

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  • Student Success Act—Conference Report

    by Senator Richard J. Durbin

    Posted on 2015-12-08

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    DURBIN. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

    Mr. DURBIN. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to speak as in morning business.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

    Religious Freedom Mr. DURBIN. Mr. President, the Founding Fathers took great care when it came to the issue of religion in our Constitution. Many of the people who had come to the United States and became its earliest White settlers came for religious freedom. They had witnessed discrimination. They had witnessed government religion. They had witnessed the type of conduct which not only offended their conscience but motivated them to come to this great Nation. So when the Founding Fathers sat down to craft our Constitution, they made three hard-and-fast rules when it came to religion in this United States of America. The first was our freedom to believe as we choose or not to believe, a personal freedom when it came to religion embodied in the civil rights. The second was prohibition against any Government of the United States establishing a state or government religion. Third, the prohibition of any litmus test before anyone could run for public office when it came to religion.

    For over 200 years now, those fundamental principles have guided the United States and have kept us away from some of the terrible conflicts which have occurred in other nations across history when it came to the clash of religious belief. It is hard to imagine that in this 21st century, more than 200 years after the Constitution was written, that in the midst of this Presidential campaign, we would once again be reflecting on religion in America, but we are.

    Statements that were made over the last several months, and especially a statement made yesterday by a Republican candidate for President, have called into question again the policy and values of the United States when it comes to the practice of religion. Mr. Donald Trump, Republican candidate for President, has proposed excluding people of the Muslim religion from the United States. He said we need to do that until our government figures out what to do with terrorism. Mr. Trump's statements have been condemned, roundly condemned by most of the other Republican Presidential nominees, as well as former Vice President Richard Cheney. It is an indication that he has gone too far. I hope it is an indication that we in America will reaffirm fundamental values, when it comes to religious beliefs, that have guided this Nation for more than two centuries. I might add, this is just the latest chapter in this story.

    Refugees Mr. President, it was only a few weeks ago when there was a conscious effort promoted by the Republican Presidential candidates to exclude Syrian refugees from the United States. They called it a pause. They said we needed to assess whether or not we ought to change our system for refugees coming to this country, and, in so doing, they required the certification by the heads of our national security agencies of each individual refugee before they could come to the United States.

    Each year, the United States allows about 70,000 refugees to come to our shores from all across the world. They come from far-flung nations. The largest contributor last year was Burma--those who were escaping persecution in Burma. The second largest group was those coming from Iraq. They included, incidentally, those Iraqis who had served and helped the United States and its military during our period of occupation. Many of them risked their lives for our soldiers, and now they are worried about retribution and have asked for asylum refuge in the United States.

    The proposal was made by the Republican side that we should limit--in fact, should delay and then limit--Syrian and Iraqi refugees. One has to wonder whether or not it has anything to do with the fact that the vast majority of people living in those two countries are of the Muslim faith.

    I have met some of these refugees in the city of Chicago. Some of them waited up to 2 years after they were being investigated and interviewed and fingerprinted--up to 2 years--before they could come to the United States. Their stories of what they and their families have been through are tragic. They come here simply to start a new life in a safe place and to raise their children. It truly is what has motivated people across the span of history to come to this great Nation, and these refugees are no different.

    The fact that the Republicans would start by excluding refugees--and now, Mr. Trump takes it to the extreme of excluding people of a religious faith, the Muslim religion--is an indication of a conversation in American politics that needs to stop. We need to reflect once again on the fundamental principles of this country and the fundamental values of this country as well. I hope this is the beginning of a reevaluation.

    It wasn't but 2 weeks ago that the House of Representatives passed the measure, the so-called pause in accepting refugees. It is interesting what has happened since. More than half of Democrats who voted for this--47 of them--have said they don't want to include this measure in any final appropriations bill considered by Congress. They are obviously having second thoughts about their votes. At least one Republican Congressman from the State of Oklahoma said he made a mistake; he never should have voted for this policy when it came to Syrian refugees. So perhaps, as tempers cool and as we reflect on who we are as a Nation and what we want to be, we will have second thoughts about this question of refugees.

    Gun Violence Mr. President, there was another vote last week which I noted on the floor yesterday and which I still find hard to believe. A measure was offered by Senator Feinstein of California. What it basically said is: If you are on a no-fly list--if you have been identified by our government as a suspected [[Page S8448]] terrorist--you cannot purchase firearms. That, to me, is not a radical suggestion. It is a commonsense suggestion. The two killers in San Bernardino had AR-15s, weapons that can be used to fire many rounds in a hurry. The net result: 14 people died and another 18 or so were seriously injured. So when someone is put on the no-fly list, the suspected terrorist list, I don't think it is unreasonable to say: You can't purchase a firearm as long as you are on that list.

    Senator Feinstein addressed the question raised by the Republican Senator from Texas: What if the government is wrong? What if your name should not be on the list? She included in her bill a process to challenge any name on the list and to do it in an orderly way with due process. Apparently, Republicans felt that wasn't enough.

    Overwhelmingly, Republicans voted against the Feinstein amendment. Overwhelmingly, they voted against a proposal to ban suspected terrorists from buying firearms in America.

    Now, I know there are many people who are skeptical--maybe even cynical--when it comes to the role of our government. But if we are not going to take the government's information and advice when it comes to suspected terrorists, where will we be? Our government--through our military, our intelligence agency, the FBI, and law enforcement--gathers information about individuals and warns us if those individuals could be a danger to our families and to our communities. The vote by the Republicans rejected that warning and said: We will err on the side of giving people firearms even if they are suspected terrorists. That makes no sense whatsoever. It shows you the extremes you can reach when you listen closely to the gun lobby and not to the vast majority of Americans who simply want to live in a safe country. It shows what happens when your opposition to this President and this government has reached the point where you question even the basic conclusion that someone has been engaged in suspicious, if not outright, terrorist activity. That vote was defeated. The amendment by Senator Feinstein was defeated.

    She also offered an amendment originally penned by Senator Lautenberg--the late Senator Lautenberg of New Jersey--related to terrorists, but the Senate also considered an amendment that related to background checks for those who want to purchase firearms. That amendment came to the floor under the sponsorship of Senator Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Senator Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania. What it said is very basic: If we are going to sell firearms in America, we are going to make every reasonable effort not to sell them to convicted felons or people who are mentally unstable. That makes sense. In fact, it should be a standard we all accept. The vast majority of gun owners accept that standard. They don't want guns in the hands of people who would use them in crime or people who are mentally unstable and can't manage a firearm. That amendment came to the floor; again, it was defeated by the Republicans in the Senate. That is unfortunate.

    In the State of Illinois, too many crime guns cross the border from northwest Indiana into the city of Chicago, coming into that city where they are traced to gun shows in Indiana where there are no background checks, where people can fill up the trunks of their cars with firearms and ammunition, cross the border into Illinois and into Chicago, and engage in deadly, violent contact. We should have that come to an end.

    The people who own and use guns responsibly and legally have no fear. But those who would buy them for criminal purposes or those who would buy them when they don't have the faculties to truly maintain a firearm or use it should be stopped.

    The Republicans disagree. They are listening to the gun lobby when they should be listening to the people of this country.

    For-Profit Colleges Mr. President, last month, the Department of Justice, along with the Department of Education and a group of State attorneys general, announced an agreement to settle litigation against Education Management Corporation, the second largest for-profit college chain in America.

    EDMC was found to have been engaged in fraud and deception when it told the Federal Government it was complying with Federal laws that prohibited incentive compensation to be paid to recruiters. For EDMC recruiters, students essentially had a bounty on their heads. The more students they signed up for their for-profit colleges, the more bonuses and perks the recruiters could receive, such as trips to places like Cancun and Las Vegas, Starbucks gift cards, expensive candies, and tickets to sporting events.

    To tell the whole story, the same EDMC recruiters--as they were recruiting young people to attend these for-profit colleges--needed only to find students with a ``pulse and a Pell'' to sign up. What they are referring to, of course, is low-income students eligible for over $5,000 in Pell grants--$5,000 that would flow to this for-profit college, regardless of whether the students were getting a good education.

    U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch referred to this school as a ``recruitment mill.'' What was the result of this recruitment mill? While these illegal practices were taking place, EDMC reportedly took in--listen to this--$11 billion in Federal funds, $11 billion in taxpayer funds. Under the settlement, the company was fined $90 million--$11 billion; $90 million.

    Well, how about the executives who masterminded the scheme to sign up young people so that their Pell grants and government loans would flow to the for-profit college, regardless of whether they ever finished school or ended up with a diploma that was worth anything? What happened to these people who engineered this scheme that cost Federal taxpayers $11 billion--students almost $11 billion in debt--and a fine by the government of $90 million? So far, they are getting off scot- free.

    Todd Nelson, CEO of EDMC until 2012, personally received over $25 million in total compensation during his 5 years. The settlement didn't include any accountability for him. Now Mr. Nelson is the CEO of the Career Education Corporation, another for-profit education company that is under massive State and Federal scrutiny.

    What about the students who were lured by EDMC's illegal recruitment mill, pressured by the company's high-pressure, boiler-room tactics into mountains of student debt? They can't find jobs many times, and they certainly can't repay their loans.

    Attorney General Lynch called EDMC's tactics a violation of the trust placed in them by the students. More than 40 State attorneys general accused the company of deception and misleading recruitment.

    So let's be clear. This was not just a case of EDMC lying to the Federal Government. Students were the victims.

    I encourage the Department of Education to use the evidence the Department of Justice and States attorneys general have in this case to provide Federal student loan relief to students who were harmed by Education Management Corporation. But make no mistake. If the students are spared the student debt from these fly-by-night for-profit colleges, ultimately the taxpayers will be the losers as well. We provided the money to the students that flowed to the schools, and now everyone is a loser, including the taxpayers--oh, not the officers of the company. They walked away with millions of dollars in compensation.

    There is one thing I always say at this point to make my case, and I have never, ever heard a rebuttal from the for-profit colleges. For- profit colleges educate about 10 percent of all the high school graduates in America. Who are the major for-profit colleges? The biggest one is the University of Phoenix, Kaplan is another large one, and DeVry University is out of the city of Chicago. These are for- profit schools.

    About 10 percent of high school grants go to these for-profit colleges. The for-profit colleges as an industry receive 20 percent of all the Federal aid to education--10 percent of the students, 20 percent of the Federal aid. Their tuition is so high that students have to go deeper into debt than if they had chosen a community college or a public university. But here is the No. 1 number: 10 percent of the students--44 percent of student loan defaults occur with students who attend for-profit colleges and universities. Almost half [[Page S8449]] of the students who end up going to these for-profit schools default on their student loans.

    Don't forget that student loans, student debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy. A 19- or 20-year-old student and their parents who sign up for these student loans have signed up for debt for life. It cannot be discharged. They will take it to the grave. When the student defaults, we actually have seen efforts to secure Social Security payments from the parents who cosigned for these loans. For 10 percent of the students in for-profit schools, there are 44 percent of the student loan defaults.

    Well, the EDMC news came on the heels of a major announcement by Westwood College, one of the worst actors in the for-profit college industry. Westwood announced it would stop enrolling students in campuses nationwide, including the four that operate in the Chicago area. Praise the Lord.

    Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued Westwood for engaging in deceptive practices. Madigan's suit focused specifically on Westwood's criminal justice program, one of the first that I have heard about that raised my interest in this for-profit college industry. In order to lure students into their criminal justice program, Westwood College convinced students they could get jobs with the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois State Police. What happened when the students actually graduated from Westwood College, this for-profit school, and took their degrees to the employers? The employers laughed at them. They didn't recognize the Westwood degree. In fact, it reached a point where they told the students they would be better off if they didn't include Westwood College on their resumes. Just say you didn't go to school, and you will have a better chance.

    The Attorney General recently reached a settlement with Westwood under which it would forgive $15 million in private student loans for Illinois students. Now it appears the company as a whole may be on its way out. That is the trend in this industry. As students and parents across America are starting to realize these for-profit schools are bad news and State and Federal regulators are shining a light on their illegal tactics, enrollment is declining. At one point, I believe the University of Phoenix had over 500,000 students. Now they are down to less than half of that amount. Along with the decline in enrollment, stock prices on these private corporations are plummeting.

    Years of bad behavior is starting to catch up with these companies, but the damage is done for these students. Many of their lives have been harmed, if not ruined, by this debt. And, of course, there has been damage to the Federal Treasury, which shells out billions--that is with a ``b''--of dollars to the for-profit colleges that the taxpayers will never get back. Yet the other party continues to come to the aid of the for-profit college industry, attempting to block any steps to ensure that for-profit colleges are following the law and held accountable. We saw it earlier this year. The junior Senator from Florida came to the aid of the disreputable Corinthian Colleges. While Corinthian was lying to students about its job-placement rates, suckering them into enrolling, and saddling them with debt, the junior Senator from Florida was writing to the Department of Education asking them to demonstrate leniency to Corinthian--leniency to a company that made misrepresentations to the students, lied to the government, and swindled taxpayers out of billions of dollars. That is the answer from the junior Senator from Florida.

    If Republicans are willing to defend Corinthian, it shouldn't be a surprise that they want to shield for-profit colleges from what is known as the gainful employment rule. The Department of Education has developed responsible criteria for determining whether career education programs really do prepare students for gainful employment. That is required by law. The gainful employment rule ensures that students who graduate from a covered program of study are able to get a job that allows them to manage the student debt they take on in the process. The point is to protect students from worthless postsecondary programs that leave them saddled with debt and unable to get a good job. The point is to also protect Federal taxpayers by cutting off Federal funding to programs of study that don't really prepare students for a job. But the for-profit college industry and their friends in Congress--they hate this rule. Why? As an industry, for-profit colleges, as I mentioned earlier, enroll 10 percent of the students and account for more than 40 percent of the student loan defaults. They take in $25 billion in title IV dollars annually. If they were a Federal agency, the for-profit colleges and universities would be the ninth largest Federal agency in America.

    Is this the private sector, is this the free market, or is this crony capitalism that survives on massive Federal subsidies? The for-profit colleges and universities are the most heavily subsidized private industry in America. Their business model depends on easy access to Federal funds and the ability to spend as little as possible on quality education. They spend more money on advertising than they do on teaching.

    Earlier this year, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dealt a devastating blow to this industry's attempt to block the gainful employment rule. The court upheld the rule in its entirety. This was the second U.S. district court to do so. Having been embarrassed in Federal court, the for-profit college industry has turned to my friends on the other side of the aisle to protect them. They attached a rider to the appropriations bills that fund education programs and are pushing to include it in the final spending bill this year to stop the Department of Education from enforcing the existing law on gainful employment.

    How can we as Members of Congress block implementation of this commonsense rule in light of what just happened with Corinthian? This company was inflating its job-placement rates to lure students, defrauding the students and taxpayers, and lying to creditors and the Federal Government. When it collapsed, when Corinthian went down, more than 70,000 students were left in peril. Many were left with more debt than they could ever possibly repay and a Corinthian education that is worthless.

    Now is not the time for Congress to meddle in the Department of Education's efforts to protect taxpayers, students, and their families, and to prevent another Corinthian collapse. The Department estimates that of the nearly 1,400 programs of study, 99 percent of them at for- profit colleges will fail under this basic rule. That is why the industry is in a mad dash to find political sponsors to save them from accountability. Programs have to fail the rule 2 out of 3 consecutive years to be cut out of Federal funding, so the institutions do have an opportunity to improve. If they don't, we shouldn't just continue to blindly send billions of Federal taxpayer dollars to these companies.

    With all we know about the for-profit college industry and their fraudulent and deceptive practices, I can't believe my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are prepared to fight a rule that is nothing more than a way to protect students and taxpayers. But here we are facing the prospect of a policy rider, substantive legislation in a spending bill to shield for-profit colleges from being held accountable and delivering on their promises to students. Well, I am going to resist that, and I hope my colleagues will join me. It isn't just a matter of making certain that these schools follow the law; it is a matter of protecting students and families from being exploited--going in for an education and ending up with nothing other than debt--and protecting taxpayers who are sending $25 billion a year to this industry.

    We have had some heated debates on the floor about people receiving food stamps--perhaps $180 a month in food stamps--and whether they are deserving or whether it is a rip-off for taxpayers, but when it comes to $25 billion for an industry that has shown over and over again that it is the source of 44 percent of student loan defaults, to the misery of the students and families who are victims of it, some of these same people who are critical of food stamp fraud turn a blind eye. They say: Oh, this is just business. Don't be afraid of making a profit.

    I salute businesses that make a profit if they do it honestly, honorably, and do it with competition. This industry is taking advantage of Federal tax dollars in a way that no other industry is.

    [[Page S8450]] I yield the floor.

    I suggest the absence of a quorum.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.

    The senior assistant legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.

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