This is a photo of a female college student looking out the window of a subway car.
Photo: iStock/skyNext

College students have a powerful friend they may not know about when it comes to protecting their rights in a time of disruption for higher education: their state’s attorney general. Often dubbed “The People’s Lawyer,” the AG is the top legal officer in a state, representing the public interest— including the rights of students—in a variety of ways.

In Virginia, Attorney General Mark Herring stepped in to protect DACA students a few years ago after weighing a slew of inconsistent and confusing guidelines for people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Herring investigated their eligibility to qualify for in-state tuition at public colleges and universities and confirmed their rights as residents, concluding that “these young people are legally entitled to in-state tuition if they otherwise meet Virginia’s domiciliary requirements.” That guidance helped secure the chance for affordable college degrees for thousands of Virginians with DACA status.

In Massachusetts, Attorney General Maura Healy took a proactive approach after considering the hardships students face when a college closes without adequate warning. When that happens, credits may not transfer, transcripts may be lost or inaccessible, and students may face sudden or undue financial burdens. So Healy began examining whether financially struggling or closing institutions had harmed students, and she helped the state’s higher education agency develop a system to monitor financially struggling institutions, offering early warnings when students’ programs are in danger of ending.

Healy also took the lead on the issue of for-profit college fraud and borrower protections. Last year, more than 20 AGs, led by Healy and Xavier Becerra of California, sued then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over her efforts to make it more difficult for student borrowers to apply for federal loan forgiveness if they had been defrauded by their colleges.

Elsewhere, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro flagged a series of scams targeting college students, including fake offers of scholarships and financial aid, bogus claims of unpaid tuition, and fake offers of online employment.

And the Minnesota AG, Keith Ellison, prepared a Student Loan Handbook, cautioned residents about student loan scams and prepared a flyer, “For-Profit Colleges: Do Your Homework.”

Even without a pandemic, recession, or other challenges to post-high school education, students would benefit from having more state leaders on their side. And people working on behalf of students should include AGs in their efforts. It’s best to have those discussions early—before issues reach the crisis level or cause lasting harm to students.

Gretchen Syverud is director of strategic alignment at Lumina Foundation


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