When former ITT Tech student Niesha Wright brought a lawsuit against the United States Secretary of Education, she joined 16 state attorneys general in a fight to save loan forgiveness for aggrieved borrowers.
Wright finished her associate’s degree in network systems administration in the summer of 2016, just weeks before ITT Tech closed. The for-profit college shuttered all of its campuses last September after the Obama administration determined it unfit to receive student federal financial aid awards. The administration promised loan forgiveness through a college closure program to current and recent students.
Wright was among those eligible to apply for federal loan forgiveness under the program — the Obama Administration Department of Education claimed students that had been enrolled within 120 days of a school’s closure were among those to be considered for reimbursement. Though she completed the associate’s degree, she pointed to her credits’ non-transferability as a sign of its inadequacy.
“That already tells me that everything that I learned, I cannot take it anywhere — any school — to further my education, to get my bachelor’s degree,” Wright said. “There’s no impact on my career, for the actual associate’s degree.”
A “Regulatory Reset”
But current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos halted the program, citing a need for a "regulatory reset" in a June 14 statement. DeVos said that the Department of Education would revisit Obama Administration rulings in an effort to provide balance for students, schools and taxpayers.
“Postsecondary institutions of all types have raised concerns about the (Borrower Defense to Repayment) regulations since they were published on Nov. 1, 2016,” DeVos said in the statement. “Colleges and universities are especially concerned about the excessively broad definitions of substantial misrepresentation and breach of contract, the lack of meaningful due process protections for institutions and ‘financial triggers’ under the new rules.”
The Department of Education did not respond to requests for further comment.
Priority For Whom?
Tressie McMillan Cottom, an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University who has researched for-profit colleges, argued that the current administration is simply giving the for-profit lobby priority over students.
“What they mean is that the Obama administration put students before profit,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that their perspectives weren’t heard in the discussion around how we were going to govern these things. It was that the administration chose to privilege students’ rights over for-profit colleges’ rights.
Wright, currently a loan analyst, decided to pursue a higher education as a means to further her career. She said she was drawn to the ITT Tech program after filling out an online form that gave the college access to her contact information. Recruiters pursued her in a sustained phone campaign, according to Wright.
“I started getting a lot of calls from ITT Tech,” she said. “Out of nowhere, it became more and more [like] five to six times a day they were calling.”
According to Wright, the college’s advisor directed her into a technical program with the suggestion she could earn a six-figure salary on graduation. But Wright claimed the program taught her little over the course of years and provided no hands-on technical training.
She also questioned the grading rubric, pointing to multiple instances where it seemed instructors handed out inflated grades to move struggling students through the program. She noted one case where she stopped going to one course entirely after struggling with the content but ended up with an A anyway.
“I dropped out — I honestly did — of that class, and at the end of the term, I got an A,” she said. “How did I get an A?”
A Common Story
Cottom said Wright’s was a common story and said the for-profit college industry actively recruits the unemployed and under-employed as potential students. Women, according to Cottom, and particularly women of color, are common targets of for-profit recruiters.
She also said that not enough people understand the concept of for-profit higher education and argued that society bears some responsibility.
“It’s actually a failure on our part that a prospective student like Niesha would see an ad for a college, and not know what a for-profit college is,” Cottom said. “We could do a much better job of that than we’ve done.”
Currently, Wright has racked up about $25,000 in student loan debt that she hopes to discharge. It remains unclear whether her case will go anywhere in the legal system. In the meantime, she said she was less confident in pursuing further education.
“It hurts,” she said. “If I stole $25,000, I would be in jail. And it feels like someone stole $25,000 from me.”