In a significant win in the battle to protect student loan borrowers, the House of Representatives voted Jan. 16 to strike down a federal rule restricting student debt cancellation for students who were deceived by their colleges.
The vote opposes the rule as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has rewritten it. Known as “borrower defense,” this decades-old policy was standardized during the Obama administration to help students who were scammed by predatory for-profit colleges—people who were promised good jobs and high-quality education but left with worthless degrees, credits that would not transfer and mountains of student loan debt—by canceling their federal student debt. DeVos’ rewrite would make it almost impossible for a student to get relief, though: It significantly increases the burden of proof for students, asks individual students to uncover internal company documents, imposes a new time limit on claims and eliminates the possibility for group claims. Under the DeVos version of the rule, borrower defense would provide relief to just 3 percent of those who apply.
“The House made it clear that we care more about defending defrauded students than enriching predatory schools,” said Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.), who introduced the bill (pictured above, at podium). “We’re not going to sit on the sidelines while these institutions scam our neighbors, our friends and our families.”
Lee joined a cadre of other lawmakers and student advocates at a press conference immediately following the vote. One of the speakers was Kendrick Harrison, a veteran who used his GI benefits to attend Argosy College, only to have it shut down three months before he would have received his degree. While he was at Argosy, the institution accessed his student aid benefits but did not pass along his living expenses stipend to him as required; instead it kept his money for itself, leaving him with mounting bills and no way to pay them. He’d hoped to give back to his community with his new education, but instead he and his family were evicted and his car was repossessed.
“This was the worry-free education that was promised to me on the battlefield,” he said. “I honored my commitment to the U.S. Army. I protected and defended this great nation only to come back and be robbed by a predatory industry that is supposed to uplift.”
Harrison is not alone. Some 350,000 people have filed borrower defense claims. Many are people of color; many are from low-income families and/or are the first in their families to attend college. Veterans are targeted because their education benefits are easier to access. These students are, as several speakers said, trying to improve their lives and the lives of their families and communities.
“They were lied to about their job prospects, they were lied to about the transferability of their credits, and they were lied to about the quality of their education,” said Lee. “There is no justice when rules that were once in place to protect students are rigged in favor of schools that put profit before education. Today’s vote is about justice.”
AFT President Randi Weingarten praised the lawmakers for passing the bill, and condemned DeVos for siding with for-profit institutions—suggesting the DeVos rewrite should be called the “Predatory Profiteering Act.” Instead of “actually following the law,” said Weingarten, DeVos has a record of flaunting it. The secretary was held in contempt of court for flouting a judge’s order and continuing to collect debts that should have been forgiven. The AFT has sued DeVos for failing to hold debt servicers accountable and for failing to deliver student debt forgiveness, but, says Weingarten, “we’re not going to wait anymore for the courts. We’re going to stop this.”
The vote put members of Congress on record, said Lee: They could side with students or, if they sided with predatory for-profit colleges, go back to their home districts and face constituents who have been harmed by those colleges. Now the issue moves to the Senate.