School for scandal

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  August 27, 2008

The idea behind this flurry of activity is to prove that the schools can create their own self-policing codes of conduct. “Our preference is that it would come from one of the associations representing colleges and universities,” rather than from the government, says Rosen.

Boston College spokesperson Jack Dunn concurs. “If there is a governing structure that can do that without government intervention, naturally colleges would find that preferable.”

But for others, only government intervention will do.

“I have never seen self-policing work,” says State Senator Mark Montigny (D–New Bedford), “especially when money is involved.”

Montigny is leading an effort to establish a code of conduct in Massachusetts covering all schools, public and private, which was unanimously included in the Senate’s version of the budget. If it does not survive the reconciliation process between the Senate and House budget, Montigny intends to introduce it separately.

Montigny’s code would ban the receipt of all gifts, monetary or otherwise, by college officials from lending institutions. He also wants colleges to make their preferred-lender list selection process totally transparent. And — unlike the higher-ed board’s plan — Montigny would get the attorney general’s office directly involved in reviewing those arrangements. That office is already conducting an investigation of college financial-aid practices statewide.

At the national level, Kennedy has moved forward some of the oversight provisions in his “Sunshine Act” proposal — a laundry list of student-loan reforms unsuccessfully introduced this past year — though they have not yet been taken up in the US House of Representatives.

Lobbyists for higher-ed institutions are trying to block federal action, while at the same time their local compatriots argue that the pending federal legislation should keep state governments from passing state-level legislation like Montigny’s.

Montigny isn’t buying it. “As much as I have faith in Ted Kennedy,” he says, “I don’t have any faith that when the lobbyists get through with it, it won’t be watered down until it does nothing.”

No code means no help
Until a universally accepted code of conduct is firmly established, students and their families are likely to suffer. That’s because colleges and universities are increasingly gun-shy about offering advice without solid guidance about what they should and shouldn’t do.

Boston College, for instance, did away with its preferred-lender list altogether, says Dunn. That eliminates concern about conflicts of interest, but leaves students and parents fending for themselves in the confusing world of educational finance. “Now we say to parents, ‘You should do your own homework,’” says Dunn.

“Schools are saying, ‘There’s so much in flux, we don’t know what we can do or can’t do,’” says O’Leary at Stonehill. “ ‘So we’ll just wait until the dust settles.’”

Kennedy’s Sunshine Act could have a similar effect, O’Leary worries, by creating too many rules and procedures for handling preferred-lender lists, leading schools to eliminate them just to be rid of the hassle.

Nobody wants that to happen, says Montigny. But students and their families should also have more than a school’s word that the financial-aid advice they get is in their best interests, not the school’s, he says. “I don’t think students should be left at the whim of whether they get a good financial-aid administrator or a good board of trustees.”

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