The Cost of Opportunity

commoditiesWe’ve all heard it so many times that we don’t even notice it anymore:  Education is a commodity.  College is an investment in your own human capital. Students are consumers, savvy individuals who bear the risks and rewards of their own investments.  Student loans are the cost of opportunity.

But this familiar “Education is a Commodity” refrain is not a benign turn of phrase.    Using the language of the market to describe higher education is driving the disastrous rise in student debt.

Why?  Because we can draw a direct line between Continue reading

Putting the Community Back in College

public croppedCommunity colleges have been much in the news since President Obama proposed free tuition for millions of students. This plan isn’t cheap and states will have to change their spending habits to reap the benefits of expanded community college for all.  They’ll need to invest considerable sums to both match the President’s proposal, and reverse historic declines in state funding so that they have the capacity to serve millions of new students.

But why should states invest in community colleges instead of relying on for-profit schools to fill the gaps, as they have done for the past decade?

Community colleges train students for much lower tuition than for-profit schools.  Students can get a comparable (or better) education for a fraction of the cost, leading to much lower rates of student debt.  This justifies some measure of state investment, if only to keep the scourges of high debt burden and default from ruining the lives of local students.

Community colleges also offer community benefits that for-profit schools do not. 

These institutions are not just “tickets to the middle class” Continue reading

Is Genesis just the beginning?

Banksy on the Thekla, photo credit Adrian Pingstone

Can the government make a for-profit school tear up its private student loan promissory notes?  We’re about to find out.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau filed suit this week against Corinthian Colleges for alleged misconduct relating to its private loan program, called Genesis.  While lawsuits against Corinthian, which operates Heald, Wyotech and Everest, abound, something about this particular suit caught my eye.

The CFPB is asking the court to “order the rescission of all Genesis loans”.  In plain English: the government is asking a federal court to cancel all of the notes on at least 170,000 private student loans, with a combined balance of $568.7 million.  As in, tear them up.  Poof.  Make them gone, as though they had never existed. Continue reading

The Color of Student Debt

“Racial disparities in student debt are closely related to the stark racial disparities in wealth characterizing American society.”


Race-based differences in student loans are little understood and often ignored in debates about higher education financing.  New research might help us to change that.  Back in 2010, the College Board noted that 27 percent of black bachelor’s degree recipients had student-loan debt of $30,500 or more, compared with just 16 percent of white bachelor’s degree students.  Of those who borrow, black students have an average of over $4,000 more debt than white students.

In “The Color of Student Debt,” researchers lay out evidence that two factors account for “over half of the black-white disparity in student loan debt.”

First, African-American families are much less likely to have wealth (as opposed to income) available to help family members attend college.  How much less likely?  Black families have, on average, six times less wealth Continue reading

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.

Student Debt Blame Game

Jordan Weissman over at the Atlantic wants to know which colleges are to blame for the explosive growth of student debt.  He notes that public disinvestment is driving up debt at public schools (which generate the lion’s share of debt because they educate the majority of students) but that for-profits have the highest rates of default.  And don’t worry, he points the finger at private non-profits that have failed to rein in costs, too.  Apparently, there is plenty of blame to go around.



Guest post: Kentucky AG takes on Spencerian College

SDEJ is proud to present a series of guest posts by our research fellow, Avie Zhao.  Avie is a 3L at American University Washington College of Law, where she is a member of the Business Law Review.  She is interested in business litigation, and is currently serving as a student attorney with DC Law Students in Court where she represents indigent clients in DC Superior Court.

For the next three weeks, she will highlight some of the actions state attorneys general are taking against for-profit colleges.  These actions situate higher education squarely within the realm of consumer law, a frame that raises fascinating questions about whether better information will lead to better outcomes for students.

Commonwealth of KY v. Sullivan d/b/a/ Spencerian College

Jack Conway, Attorney General of Kentucky and leader of a national bipartisan effort into examining abuses by for-profit colleges, is now investigating Spencerian College.  In January, 2013, Conway’s office brought a consumer-protection lawsuit against Sullivan University System, Inc., the parent company of Spencerian College.  The complaint alleges that Spencerian College knowingly provided false and misleading data regarding the percentage of students who were able to obtain employment.  Spencerian allegedly inflated the employment rates of graduates by as much as 40 % in its publications and on its website.  The complaint seeks injunctive relief, civil penalties, and recovery of investigative costs.

This lawsuit against Spencerian College marks the fourth lawsuit against for-profit colleges filed by Attorney General Conway’s office.  Previously, Attorney General Conway’s office has filed civil lawsuits against Daymar College, National College, and Education Management Corp. (parent company of Brown Mackie College).

Are you sure you want to put that question to a jury?

Did Globe University fire Dean Heidi Weber for poor performance or because she blew the whistle on its deceptive marketing practices?  Heidi Weber sued Globe, a for-profit institution (profiled here by Minnesota Public Radio) in 2011, claiming that Globe fired her in retaliation for raising questions about compliance with accreditation standards in its medical assistant program.  She alleged that they paid commissions to recruiters, inflated job statistics and failed to provide training opportunities promised to students.

This week, a Minnesota jury awarded the former dean of the medical assistant program almost $400,000 for lost wages and emotional distress.  Globe alleges that they fired her for performance, but jurors seemed swayed by evidence of malfeasance, such as the school’s failure to disclose that credits were not as transferable as they had represented and to tell students that promised externships were not available.  They also seemed disturbed by the fact that the school had knowingly enrolled students with felony records, even though those students would not be able to get jobs in a field that requires background checks.  Like the verdict last month against Vaderott, this verdict seems to tap into  deep public disgust with the for-profit industry, fueled at least in part by high default rates on student loans at these schools.









Jury awards $13M to student decieved by for-profit college

When Jennifer Kerr enrolled in a medical training program at Vatterott College, recruiters told her that she would be qualified for $15/hour jobs as a medical assistant.  After taking our more that $27,00 in loans and taking classes for over a year, she learned that she was not even in the medical assistant program, and that she’d need to cough up another $10,000 and study for 30 more weeks to be qualified for the job she wanted.

The Kansas City Star reports that a Missouri jury found that the bait-and-switch amounted to a violation of the state’s Merchandising Practices Act, and awarded her actual damages for the amount of the loans.  Then, they awarded her $13M in punitive damages, exceeding what she had requested by $9M.  Apparently there’s some pretty deep anger lurking out there in the jury pool.

Could we see more state court cases like this one?  According to the National Center for Consumer Law, there are large gaps in state oversight of for-profit schools, but there are some signs that state regulators and courts are starting to take unfair and deceptive practices (known in consumer law parlance as UDAP) complaints more seriously.