Blowing the whistle on for-profit education

Blowing the whistle on for-profit education

It’s been a busy week in student loan litigation news.  In addition to the CFPB suit against ITT, the The New York Times reports that former employees have sued Harris (Premier Education Group), a for-profit trade school in New Jersey.

The complaint (filed in 2011 and unsealed in late 2013) reads like a catalog of the worst practices alleged by critics of the for-profit industry.  The whistleblowers contend that school officials violated the False Claims Act by taking in federal student aid after knowingly enrolling students who could not pass basic literacy exams, falsifying entrance exam grades, passing students out of courses that the students had failed, forging students’ signatures on loan documents, and misleading students about their career prospects and eligibility to sit for professional licensing exams.  If the plaintiffs are successful, the suit carries significant penalties, including treble damages.

This isn’t the first time Harris has been sued. The Press of Atlantic City reports that in March 2011, thirty-seven former Harris students brought suit against the school. Among the alleged violations? Misrepresentation of accreditation status, which meant that students were not eligible to sit for a required professional licensing exam, rendering their degrees worthless.

The CFPB bares its teeth

The CFPB bares its teeth

In a move applauded by consumer advocates, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau filed suit against ITT Technical Institute.  The Huffington Post reports that this marks the first suit brought by the new consumer protection agency against a for-profit school.

The complaint alleges that ITT violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act and the Truth in Lending Act by enticing students through deceptive marketing and strong-arm recruiting tactics. ITT allegedly misrepresented its graduation and placement rates, and misled consumers about the school’s accreditation.

The complaint also alleges that ITT coerced students into taking out private loans for ITT’s own private gain. How? Well, tuition at ITT is much higher than students can afford, even after maxing out federal financial aid. To close the tuition gap, ITT offered students temporary credit from ITT. That credit came due within nine months–something many of the students were not told during a rushed financial aid discussion. When many of those students were unable to pay the hefty tuition price tag within the required nine months, ITT allegedly forced those students into private loans, due within 10 years, with a 16% interest rate. Defaults at ITT on those private loans topped 70%.

This isn’t ITT’s first legal rodeo.   Former students sued ITT for misrepresentation in 1995.  In 2005, ITT settled a lawsuit with the state of California for inflating grades in order to get more state aid. And ITT’s problems don’t end there; it revealed in an recent SEC filing that a long list of state Attorneys General have issued subpoenas or “civil investigative demands” under state consumer protection statutes.