The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau this morning filed a civil lawsuit against for-profit college company ITT Educational Services, seeking restitution to students allegedly harmed by ITT's private loan programs, a civil fine, and an injunction against the company. The CFPB filed its complaint in federal court in Indianapolis, near ITT's headquarters.
UPDATE [1:15 pm]: The CFPB just held a press conference to discuss the case. CFPB director Richard Cordray charged that ITT "misled students by overstating their salaries and job prospects upon graduation" and then pushed them into predatory high-interest private student loans.
Cordray called the abuse of students by the overall for-profit college industry "truly an American tragedy." He was joined at the event by the attorneys general of Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa, and New Mexico, all of whom are conducting investigations of major for-profit colleges.
Illinois AG Lisa Madigan called for-profit college business practices "indefensible." Kentucky AG Jack Conway discussed the new investigation that thirteen state AGs have launched against Education Management Corporation, Career Education Corporation, and Corinthian Colleges, as well as ITT. He said many for-profit colleges were "more interested in getting student loan dollars than in educating students."
Conway noted that the for-profit college industry hires large numbers of powerful lobbyists, including former members of Congress, to block accountability measures, and said that these law enforcement investigations were an important response to the harms caused by the industry.
Cordray said that ITT has been telling different stories to students than what it is telling investors. ITT's own analysis, he said, showed that 64 percent of its students would default on their private loans, information it did not share with students. "While many students got poorer, the investors and shareholders got richer," he said.
Here's the press release CFPB sent out:
FEBRUARY 26, 2014
CFPB Sues For-Profit College Chain ITT For Predatory Lending
ITT Pushed Consumers into High-Cost Student Loans Likely to Fail
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Today the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) filed a lawsuit against ITT Educational Services, Inc., accusing the for-profit college chain of predatory student lending. The CFPB alleges that ITT exploited its students and pushed them into high-cost private student loans that were very likely to end in default. The CFPB is seeking restitution for victims, a civil fine, and an injunction against the company.
"ITT marketed itself as improving consumers' lives but it was really just improving its bottom line," said CFPB Director Richard Corday. "We believe ITT used high-pressure tactics to push many consumers into expensive loans destined to default. Today's action should serve as a warning to the for-profit college industry that we will be vigilant about protecting students against predatory lending tactics."
Like the mortgage market in the lead-up to the financial crisis, the for-profit college industry may be experiencing misaligned incentives. These colleges benefit when students take out large amounts of loans, regardless of the students' long-term success. The CFPB is concerned that some of these corporations may be employing practices to coax consumers into taking out more federal and private student loans. Today's announcement is the Bureau's first public enforcement action against a company in the for-profit college industry.
ITT Educational Services, Inc. is an Indiana-based for-profit provider of post-secondary technical education. Tens of thousands of students are enrolled online or at one of ITT's roughly 150 institutions in nearly 40 states. ITT's tuition costs are among the highest in the country in the for-profit industry. Earning an Associate's degree at ITT can cost more than $44,000. Bachelor's degree programs can cost $88,000. That is significantly higher than the cost of similar degrees at a community college or a public four-year institution.
Most of ITT's students borrow large sums to pay the high tuition costs and the majority of this money is borrowed from federal student loan programs. But private student loans also provide critical revenue for ITT. Because most ITT students' federal aid does not cover the full cost of an ITT program, most students face a "tuition gap" requiring them to find other sources of funding.
The CFPB's lawsuit alleges that ITT encouraged new students to enroll at ITT by providing them funding for this tuition gap with a zero-interest loan called "Temporary Credit." This loan typically had to be paid in full at the end of the student's first academic year. But ITT knew from the outset that many students would not be able to repay their Temporary Credit balances or fund their next year's tuition gap.
The CFPB lawsuit alleges that between July 2011 and December 2011, ITT pushed its students into repaying their Temporary Credit and funding their second-year tuition gaps through high-cost private student loan programs. Students were left in the dark about the fact that taking out these high-cost loans would be required to continue their studies. However, ITT's CEO revealed in investor calls that converting the temporary loans to long-term loans was the company's "plan all along."
- Pressured into predatory loans: ITT used its financial aid staff to rush students through an automated application process without affording them a fair opportunity to understand the loan obligations involved. In some cases, students did not even know they had a private student loan until they started getting collection calls. The loans were high-cost. For borrowers with credit scores under 600, for example, the costs of the private student loans included 10 percent origination fees and interest rates as high as 16.25 percent.
- Credits not transferable: ITT was accredited by a national organization that accredits many for-profit schools, but the credits that students earned typically did not transfer to local community colleges or other nonprofit schools such as public or private colleges. ITT used the prospect of expulsion and the loss of the money already spent during the student's first year to coerce students into taking out the private loans.
- Misleading future job prospects: The Bureau believes that ITT's representations led students to think that when they graduated they were likely to land good jobs and enough salary to repay their private student loans. In this way, ITT exploited student expectations while it knew that a majority of students would default.
- Loans likely to fail: ITT knew that most of its students would ultimately default on their private student loans; it projected a default rate for its students of 64 percent. Defaulting on private student loans can have grave consequences for consumers. It can make it difficult to get any kind of loan for years and even affect a borrower's job prospects. And, because private student loans are difficult to discharge in bankruptcy, the debt can be very difficult to recover from.