More than 158,000 former students at predatory for-profit colleges sued Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her department on Tuesday, demanding that the Department of Education continue reviewing applications for federal loan relief.
The former students had applied for “borrower defense,” which would allow them to have their federal loans canceled if their college misled them or violated state laws. But their applications have been left untouched. Since June 2018, the Department of Education has neither granted nor denied the “borrower defense” application of any plaintiff, according to the complaint ― leaving the former students waiting and in debt. (The department did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.)
The plaintiffs now hope the lawsuit will give them a second chance. They are represented by the Project on Predatory Student Lending at Harvard’s Legal Services and Housing & Economic Rights Advocates (HERA). For-profit colleges implicated in the suit include the ITT Technical Institute, Corinthian Colleges, DeVry University and Brooks Institute of Photography.
Alicia Davis, a former student at Florida Metropolitan University, now called Everest University, said she and the other plaintiffs “have been pretty much scammed and defrauded and ruined when trying to go and do something with ourselves and better ourselves.”
“Literally 160,000-plus people cannot move on with their life because of this non-decision by Besty DeVos,” she added later.
Davis worked as a bartender for a few years after high school until her early 20s, when she decided on the career she wanted to pursue: crime scene investigation. She saw an ad on television for Florida Metropolitan University, which boasted of its online degree in criminal justice. So she emailed them and heard back from a “counselor” there, who sold her on the school.
The woman highlighted that the program was online and claimed that a bachelor’s degree was necessary for crime scene investigation careers — both were selling points for Davis. The woman said her credits could be transferred if she decided to pursue an education elsewhere.
The counselor never told Davis how much the program would actually cost. Instead, according to Davis, the counselor said she would qualify for scholarships and that anything that wasn’t covered with financial aid would be covered with grants and scholarships within the college.
Davis was convinced, and she enrolled at FMU in 2006 to pursue a degree in criminal justice. She didn’t know that the school was taking out loans on her behalf ― loans that she didn’t learn about until 10 years later.
After Davis tried to transfer to a community college and apply for financial aid, she had to switch schools because FMU “ghosted” her in 2008 ― no longer contacting her about the program or replying to messages. At that time, FMU was bought by Corinthian, and Davis could no longer log into its online campus. Everest is now run by Zenith Education Group — Corinthian was shut down in 2015. Zenith Education Group said it could not address allegations from before 2015, the year it acquired a subset of for-profit Everest campuses from Corinthian Colleges.
“Not a single credit transferred” to the community college. She wound up taking out even more student loans. After earning a master’s at the University of Central Florida, Davis was about $100,000 in debt.
Davis says FMU never sent her notices or information about the loans, which she said ruined her financially and could hurt her when applying for jobs if the company runs a credit check.
“It’s dropped my credit score, I can’t get a car loan, I can’t refinance credit cards—which I need to do to lower my payment — I can’t get a good interest rate,” she said. “I’ll never be able to buy a house.”
But it’s not only Davis who is experiencing the effects of predatory for-profit education. “It’s an entire country full of people. And it’s terrifying. It’s terrible, honestly,” she said.
The Obama administration attempted to help former students like Davis in 2016, when it announced regulations against misleading and predatory practices by colleges by clarifying the “borrower defense” regulation that had been implemented in 1995. The changes were meant to take effect July 1, 2017.
But in June 2017, now under the Trump administration, DeVos announced that her department would postpone the date of implementation because of pending litigation against the Borrower Defense to Repayment regulation.
DeVos said later that year that “under the previous [borrower defense rules], all one had to do was raise his or her hands to be entitled to so-called free money.”
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia sued, and in September 2018, a federal judge ruled that Devos could not delay the plan for debt relief. But the Department of Education has not processed any claims for federal debt relief since June 2018, according to the Project on Predatory Student Lending.
“We’re suing Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education to hold them accountable and protect students across the country,” Toby Merrill, the director of Project on Predatory Student Lending, said in a statement. The group is asking former for-profit college students who have filed applications to submit testimonies for the lawsuit.
Many of the plaintiffs say they were misled by the for-profit universities they attended. The complaint cites a study by the progressive think tank Century Foundation that showed that in multiple for-profit schools in the U.S., from August 2016 to January 2017, less than 30% of tuition money was spent on instruction ― at Capella University in Minneapolis, that figure was only 10%.
“Given the predatory nature of this industry, and the Department’s failure to regulate it, it is no surprise that students of for-profit colleges accounted for approximately 98% of all loan cancellation applications sent to the government between 2016 and 2018,” reads the complaint.
The attorneys for the former students are arguing the agency is violating the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires federal agencies “to render responsive decisions on matters within its purview in a prompt and definite fashion.” In other words, federal agencies shouldn’t stall.
Federal agencies “have a duty to decide” so that former students can make decisions about how to move forward with their lives, according to Natalie Lyons, senior attorney for Housing & Economic Rights Advocates.
“We’re not saying that they have to grant every application, but they have to make a decision on the merits,” she said.
DeVos “by all appearances doesn’t like this particular set of regulations, particular set of rights,” Lyons said. “But simply because she doesn’t like them doesn’t mean that she can not act on them.”
This story has been updated with Zenith Education Group’s response to a request for a comment