College students from across the country are back in school. Many of them cannot afford the sky-high cost of college without loans. As a result, countless students are going to spend decades after they graduate paying off enormous debts to student loan companies. Just as the right degree presents a student with new opportunities, the wrong loan harmfully restricts where their education can take them.
With the stakes so high, we need to make sure every student can easily choose the loan that is right for him or her, and is protected by his or her school and the government from unfair lending deals.
Two-thirds of all students leave college with loan debts. Even a quarter of 1 percent on a student loan can affect a graduate's debt load for years. Although previous generations graduated with only a few thousand dollars of debt, students are now leaving school with what can only be described as an education mortgage - debt they spend decades paying off.
Unfortunately, the $85 billion lending industry has faced minimal regulatory oversight.
This has allowed problematic financial ties between private lenders and higher-education institutions to flourish.
An investigation conducted by my office in New York exposed conflicts of interest at schools and lenders across the country. We discovered that alumni associations at many schools, including the University of Maryland, were given various perks to steer their recent graduates toward the second-largest loan consolidator in the country. And we continue to uncover new dimensions of this widespread scandal.
Before our investigation, students trusted their schools to such an extent that nine out of 10 student borrowers chose to take a loan from a school-recommended lender. Regrettably, in some cases, lenders took advantage of this trust and did whatever they could to get on a college's list of "preferred" lenders, whether that involved giving kickbacks to a school, paying a financial aid officer directly or providing school officials with trips and gifts.
After uncovering these illegal activities, my office persuaded many lenders and schools to change course. To date, 26 schools and 10 major loan companies - including the nation's six largest lenders - have adopted a code of conduct that prohibits kickbacks and other improper practices.
This year, New York State unanimously passed a law based on our code of conduct to ensure that every student at every school across the state is protected. A similar bill that would safeguard working- and middle-class families nationwide is now working its way through Congress.
All students throughout the country deserve to have the law on their side when dealing with the student lending industry.
A college degree should be a student's chance to invest in his or her future, not an opportunity for lenders to profit at his or her expense.
Andrew Cuomo is New York state attorney general. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.