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Obama to lament DeVry grad's student debt

President expected to criticize heavy debt loads borne by for-profit college student

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President Obama will take a gentle swing tonight at for-profit education companies that sometimes leave students with crippling debt and scant job prospects.

During his State of the Union address, Obama is expected to identify an audience member who carries a massive debt burden after attending a school owned by DeVry Education Group, one of the biggest for-profit education companies, according to a government official briefed on the speech. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the speech publicly.

Obama will use the woman, a single mother, to illustrate the challenge faced by millions of Americans who are unable to pay down their education loans, the official said. The president is not expected to name DeVry, or the for-profit education industry generally.

Critics charge that students at for-profit schools like DeVry often have trouble repaying their loans, mainly because they have weaker job prospects than people who attend traditional, not-for-profit colleges. More than 23 percent of 2010 DeVry students defaulted in their first two years of repayment, according to Education Department data. That’s well above the national average of 14.7 percent.

For the for-profit education industry, the default rate is 22.7 percent, compared with 11 percent for public universities and 7.5 percent for private, not-for-profit, schools.

Several other for-profit education companies are being investigated by state attorneys general, the Justice Department, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for misleading prospective students about the likelihood that they will find a job in their chosen fields. The schools’ lending programs also are being examined, according to people briefed on the probes. DeVry is not one of the schools being investigated.

U.S. student debt last year topped $1.2 trillion, making it the biggest single source of consumer debt aside from mortgages, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. More than $1 trillion of those loans are held or guaranteed by the government, the agency says. The debt burden is dragging on the economic recovery, making it more difficult for young people to afford mortgages and strike out on their own, agency officials have said.

Tonight will mark Obama’s most direct reference in a State of the Union address to how he believes student debt hurts Americans’ finances and the economic recovery, the official said. Obama has talked in the past about ensuring that all Americans have access to higher education and called on colleges to slow tuition hikes.