A lot has been said about the college debt crisis, but not enough about one of its main causes. For-profit colleges, as a group, not only leave graduates swimming in student loan debt, but also struggling to find well-paying jobs.

That’s a shame, particularly in Maine, where the robust community college system offers a better track record at training and placing workers for a fraction of the cost, and where a stagnant population and the demands of the economy require a well-educated workforce.

HEAVY COSTS, LOWER PAY

Steadily rising costs at colleges of all kinds certainly have contributed to the worrisome level of student debt. But making matters worse are programs that claim to build job skills, yet often fail to land graduates jobs. That’s the experience of many students, in Maine and across the country, who have attended for-profit colleges.

A report released last week by the nonpartisan Center for Responsible Lending found that Maine graduates of for-profit colleges are left with nearly two and a half times the debt of graduates of two-year public institutions: $23,781 versus $10,940.

That scans with a report earlier this year from the federal Department of Education, which found that of the more than 800 career-training programs nationwide that leave graduates with unaffordable student debt – defined as more than 12 percent of total earnings – 98 percent were at for-profit colleges. An early federal study found that public college graduates earn nearly $9,000 more per year than graduates of comparable for-profit career-training programs.

“It’s clear that low performance is concentrated in the for-profit sector,” said Ted Mitchell, then-undersecretary of education.

What’s more, students at for-profit colleges are more likely to take out federal student loans: 75 percent compared to 41 percent at two-year public institutions in Maine.

These schools are filling their coffers with taxpayer-backed loans, then failing to follow through on their promise to prepare students for a better job. That backfired when two of the largest for-profit colleges, Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, folded while under investigation for fraud, leaving taxpayers on the hook for forgiven loans, and it is backfiring in Maine when students get nothing but piles of debt out of their for-profit degree.

A BETTER WAY

Far more successful is the Maine Community College System, which is providing better job placement while creating less than half the student debt.

It’s targeting the same population, too: Mainers, many of them nontraditional students, who want job-specific training; 70 percent are in occupational programs.

They are also low-income, with 76 percent of Maine Community College System students qualifying for financial aid, even though the tuition is lowest in New England. Nearly 60 percent attend part-time, and more than a third work at least 30 hours per week.

Maine must reach these students if it wants to compete. The number of high school graduates is down 14 percent since 2008, and is expected to fall another 13 percent by 2032. With 60 percent of new jobs requiring some sort of postsecondary degree, Maine needs most of its high school graduates to go on to college and flourish, both for the sake of the state workforce and the students themselves.

Given the outcomes at for-profit colleges, it also makes sense for Maine to keep an eye on these institutions. Under former President Barack Obama, schools were forced to disclose student earnings, debt and graduation rates, which is why we know so clearly that for-profit colleges as a whole are a failure. The requirements, however, have been under attack since they were proposed, and President Trump may not enforce them.

It would then be up to the state to look out for students. L.D. 1404, a bill from Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, would review for-profit colleges each year, making sure they are serving students. Legislators should give it serious consideration.

With such a strong community college system, there’s no need for Maine to have undertrained workers, or for Mainers to throw away money on junk degrees.