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VA Urged to End Restrictive Higher-Ed Enrollment Contracts

People considering going back to college should beware of forced arbitration and so-called "gag clauses" in some schools' enrollment contracts that can limit students' rights. (Adobe Stock)
People considering going back to college should beware of forced arbitration and so-called "gag clauses" in some schools' enrollment contracts that can limit students' rights. (Adobe Stock)
April 22, 2020

RICHMOND, Va. -- As more people explore going back to school after losing jobs in the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia is being urged to prohibit the use of enrollment contracts by some private post-secondary schools.

Michael Saunders, director of military and consumer policy for Veterans Education Success, said these contracts can include restrictions that limit students' legal recourse if they discover fraudulent practices or aren't happy with the quality of education. Saunders said the now-defunct ITT Tech used nondisclosure clauses that prevented students from reporting extreme turnover among teachers.

"The students realized that they were not getting a quality education," he said, "and instead of being able to possibly go to law enforcement and say, 'Hey, I'm not getting what I'm paying for here,' that you would be prevented from doing so by some of these clauses."

The state Council of Higher Education for Virginia just ended its call for public input about proposed changes to the regulations for enrollment contracts. Saunders said he expects any adjustments to be finalized after 90 days.

Rising unemployment often goes hand-in-hand with higher enrollment in post-secondary schools, as people change careers or try to boost their skills. Saunders said his organization has documented an increase in online ads by predatory for-profit colleges, raising concerns that more students will see big promises from schools that under-deliver. In some of the enrollment contracts, he said, clauses that force students into arbitration are particularly harmful.

"These arbitration hearings are private," he said. "Whatever the agreement is, is not publicly available, and it prevents the harm that the student is alleging from ever seeing the light of day. It prevents anybody else from finding out about these things that the student experienced."

A report from the Century Foundation found that restrictions frequently are imposed by for-profit colleges, only rarely at traditional colleges, and almost never at public institutions.

The Veterans Education Success letter is online at vetsedsuccess.org.


Support for this reporting was made possible by Lumina Foundation.

Diane Bernard, Public News Service - VA