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Education Dept. to forgive $72 million of student loans after FTC action
On February 16, the FTC announced that the Department of Education (Department) will forgive $71.7 million in federal loans for approximately 1,800 former students deceived by a for-profit university. In 2016, the FTC sued university operators for allegedly advertising that 90 percent of graduates found jobs in their fields within six months of graduation, and that graduates had a 15 percent higher income on average than graduates of all other colleges or universities one year after graduation. The announcement expands on a prior FTC settlement, which required the university to pay $49.4 million in partial refunds to qualifying students and $50.6 million in debt relief. The forgiven debt included the full balance owned on all private unpaid student loans issued by the university to students as well as debts for items such as tuition, books, and lab fees. According to the Department’s announcement, these are the first approved borrower defense claims associated with a currently operating institution. The Department noted that it intends to recoup discharge costs from the university and anticipates an increase in the number of approved claims related to the university as it continues to review pending applications.
The Department stated in total it is cancelling $415 million in student loan debt under the borrower defense to repayment program, noting that several other actions will provide borrower defense discharges to nearly 14,000 borrowers attending other colleges and universities. “The Department remains committed to giving borrowers discharges when the evidence shows their college violated the law and standards,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. The Department further noted that it is working on new regulations to improve the borrower defense to repayment program, as well as other discharge programs to provide more protections for students and taxpayers. “This includes writing a new borrower defense regulation, proposing to re-establish a gainful employment regulation to hold career training programs accountable for unaffordable debt, and proposing to create financial triggers so that the Department has monetary protection against potential losses, including borrower defense liabilities,” the Department said in its announcement.
Department of Education streamlines borrower defense relief process
On March 18, the Department of Education announced a new, streamlined approach for ensuring federal borrowers who attended institutions that engaged in certain misconduct are able to receive full discharges of their William D. Ford Direct Loan Program loans. The new approach—which rescinds a methodology announced in December 2019 that relied “on publicly available earnings data and a scientifically robust statistical methodology to determine harm”—will immediately create a path for borrowers with approved borrower defense claims to date to receive full loan discharges, including borrowers who already had their claims approved and received only partial relief. In addition, the Department said full relief under the new approach will also include requests to credit bureaus to remove any negative ratings tied to the loans, and reinstatement of a borrower’s federal student aid eligibility, where applicable.
State AGs support congressional disapproval of 2019 Borrower Defense Rule
On January 14, a coalition of attorneys general from 19 states and the District of Columbia sent a letter to Congress in support of H.J. Res. 76, which was passed by the House of Representatives on January 16, and provides for congressional disapproval of the Department of Education’s 2019 Borrower Defense Rule (covered by InfoBytes here). The Department’s 2019 Borrower Defense Rule, published last September and set to take effect July 1, revises protections for student borrowers that were significantly misled or defrauded by their higher education institution and establishes standards for loan forgiveness applicable for “adjudicating borrower defenses to repayment claims for Federal student loans first disbursed on or after July 1, 2020.”
The AGs claim, however, that the 2019 Borrower Defense Rule “provides no realistic prospect for borrowers to discharge their loans when they have been defrauded by predatory for-profit schools, and . . . eliminates financial responsibility requirements for those same institutions.” The AGs further argue that the new provisions require “student borrowers to prove intentional or reckless misconduct on the part of their schools,” which they claim is “an extraordinarily demanding standard not consistent with state laws governing liability for unfair and deceptive conduct.” Other standards, such as requiring student borrowers to “prove financial harm beyond the intrinsic harm caused by incurring federal student loan debt as a result of fraud” and establishing a three-year time bar on borrower defense claims, would further reduce protections for student borrowers. Citing to several state enforcement actions taken against for-profit schools for alleged deceptive and unlawful tactics, the AGs stress the need for a “robust and fair borrower defense rule.”
AG coalition calls on Department of Education to discharge loans for students who attended closed for-profit school
On November 13, a coalition of 22 state attorneys general led by the Massachusetts attorney general sent a letter to the Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Chief Operating Officer to determine whether the Department has complied with federal regulations that allow student borrowers to qualify for automatic discharge relief if they attended a school within 120 days of its closure date and have not continued their education elsewhere. The letter referred to an estimate provided by the Department in May, which stated that approximately 52,000 former students of a now-closed for-profit college qualified for automatic closed-school discharge relief. The letter notes, however, that recent information obtained from Congress indicates that only 7,000 student borrowers have been granted automatic discharges. Among other things, the AGs ask the Department to clarify whether all eligible students are now receiving automatic discharges, and request that the 120-day window be expanded “due to the deeply compromised nature of the school and its offerings in the months before its national collapse.” In addition, the letter requests details about the number of students with discharged loans and the methodology the Department is using to implement the automatic closed-school discharge.
District Court certifies class suing Department of Education over borrower defense claims
On October 30, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California certified a class of borrowers who allegedly applied for student loan relief based on their higher education institution’s misconduct but have yet to receive a decision from the Department of Education. The borrowers allege that the Department has arbitrarily and capriciously stonewalled its own process for adjudicating the borrowers’ defense claims under the Higher Education Act, which “allows the Department to cancel a student federal loan repayment based on a school’s misconduct.” The borrowers claim the Department has failed to decide a borrower defense claim since June 2018. According to the borrowers—former students of for-profit schools with claims dating back to 2015—“the Department’s inaction continues to cause putative class members ongoing harm.” The Department argued, however, that the class should not be certified because the borrowers’ claims rely too much on individual circumstances and fail to prove a “systemic policy of inaction[.]” The court disagreed and certified the class, stating that the borrowers “have identified a single uniform policy—namely, the Department’s alleged ‘blanket refusal’ to adjudicate borrower defenses—which ‘bridges all their claims.’” Moreover, the court noted that “this alleged uniform policy is supported by the undisputed fact that the Department has failed to adjudicate a single borrower defense claim in over a year.” The class does not include borrowers who are part of a separate action filed against the Department (covered by InfoBytes here).