While the Education Management Corporation received more than $1 billion in taxpayer-funded student aid each year, many of the students its recruiters signed up dropped out, winding up with nothing but tens of thousands in student loan debt.

John McKernan, former governor of Maine and husband of then-Sen. Olympia Snowe, was CEO or chairman of the board of EDMC from 2003 to 2012, a controversial period for the company.

Senate investigators found that in 2010 over 63 percent of all students who enrolled at EDMC’s colleges in the 2008-09 academic year withdrew, and the median length of enrollment for these students was just four months. By comparison, at public institutions, 58 percent of first-time, full-time students earn bachelor’s degrees within six years, and 65 percent of those at private nonprofit colleges and universities do, according to federal statistics.

Senate investigators found that students who graduate from for-profit schools have greater median debt: $32,700 for a four-year student, compared to $20,000 for their counterparts at public colleges and $24,600 for those at private, nonprofit institutions. Part of the reason is that their tuition was higher. An associate degree in web design from EDMC’s Art Institute of Pittsburgh set students back $47,410, whereas the same degree cost $6,800 at the nearby Community College of Allegheny County, the investigation found.

“The students who were enrolled in these programs were in general misled into thinking they were going to get a degree or credential to help them get a better job than they currently had,” says David Hawkins of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Arlington, Virginia. “Many of them ended up with the same jobs they could have had without ever setting foot in the college, but also with crippling student debt and little prospect of being able to pay it back.”

Sixteen percent of EDMC’s students defaulted on their loans in 2008, nearly double the rate of students at public and nonprofit schools. At EDMC’s Brown Mackie College in Tucson, Arizona, the rate was 33.3 percent.

In the summer of 2010, the Obama administration proposed imposing tough new “gainful employment” rules, which would require colleges to track graduates’ performance in the workforce, and would deny access to student loan programs if the students fared badly.

McKernan pushed back against the rules in an op-ed in The Hill, a Washington, D.C., newspaper that covers Congress, saying the reason EDMC had higher loan default rates was because they “educate a high proportion of at-risk students” and arguing schools like his were vital to increasing access to higher education.

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