Getting money's worth not partisan

For-profit colleges and vocational schools run on tax dollars. Some of them derive almost 90 percent of their income from government-backed student loans.

Elected officials who want to guard the public treasury will have to make sure that something of value is being provided for all the tax dollars that flow into the for-profit education industry's bottom lines.

Yet, the partisan divide that has become all too familiar is opening up again.

It happened last week in Frankfort, when a couple of Republicans rose to the industry's defense, and in Washington, when Republicans boycotted a Senate committee hearing because they said it was one-sided.

The panel was hearing from former students who said they had paid a high price to for-profit colleges for training and credentials that proved worthless in the job market.

In Frankfort, at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Occupations and Licenses, Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, accused Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway of "indicting a whole industry."

In fact, Conway is investigating and has subpoenaed records from seven of Kentucky's 141 for-profit schools, indicating, as he said, that many are doing good work.

Kentucky Public Radio's Tony McVeigh reports that Thayer also objected to the use of the word "predatory" in relation to the industry.

But what else do you call it when consumers are misled or pressured into signing loans they can't afford?

Students are being preyed on by some for-profit colleges and schools, which enroll 12 percent of college students but account for 46 percent of student loan defaults.

Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, made an economic defense, saying for-profit schools boost local economies through jobs, taxes and other ways.

"Renting property, warehouses, that quite frankly in my district would probably be vacant," said Schickel. "And (they) are not coming to the Kentucky General Assembly and asking for money for capital improvements."

Indeed, for-profit colleges and schools do create economic activity while filling some useful educational niches, though the tuition is generally much higher than at their public counterparts.

In this economy, we understand the desire to save any jobs, but Schickel's remarks are short-sighted in a couple of ways. For one, government has a higher duty than just promoting any kind of economic activity; it has an obligation to protect citizens from unfair exploitation by unscrupulous businesses.

Also, piling up so much student loan debt that borrowers will never be able to buy a house, start a business, save, invest or even dig out isn't a smart economic policy. Surely, if we learned anything from the sub-prime mortgage crisis and housing market collapse, it's that.