Predatory Lending/Consumer Protection Clinic

LSC’s Toby Merrill ’11 named to the TIME 100 Next list

The founder of the Project on Predatory Student Lending is recognized for leading the fight against predatory for-profit colleges and fighting for the rights of over one million student borrowers.

toby merrill

Toby Merrill ’11, founder and director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending.
(Photo: Martha Stewart)

Toby Merrill ’11, founder and director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending at Harvard Law School, has been named to the first-ever TIME 100 Next list, an expansion of the TIME 100 list of the most influential people in the world. The list highlights 100 rising stars who are shaping the future of business, entertainment, sports, politics, health, science and activism, and more. Others on the TIME 100 Next list include Pete Buttigieg, Kyrsten Sinema, Aly Raisman. The full list and related tributes appear in the November 25, 2019 issue of TIME, available on newsstands on Friday, November 15, and now at time.com/next.

TIME 100 Next says of Merrill: “Years before student debt would be widely considered a national crisis—Americans now owe a combined $1.6 trillion—Toby Merrill started using litigation to fight what she calls the ‘worst-of-the-worst student debt,’ the kind incurred by students who enrolled in predatory for-profit colleges that burdened them with debt and provided them with worthless degrees.”

Read more at Harvard Law Today.

UPDATE: Judge Grants Class Certification to 200,000 Student Borrowers in Sweet v. DeVos

96% of the 900 class members who submitted affidavits in support of this motion said their lives are worse today than before they went to school

 

On Wednesday, October 30, a judge certified the class of more than 200,000 borrowers in Sweet v. DeVos, a case that seeks to force the Department of Education to process their borrower defense applications. This victory for borrowers ensures that the voices of former for-profit college students, who have been cheated by their school and ignored by their government for years, will be heard.

The judge also issued a sharp rebuke of the Department’s excuses for its inaction, saying that the Department’s actions, as alleged in the lawsuit, show “the uniform policy of inaction.”

The court goes on:

But here is a fact no one disputes: the Department has decided zero applications since June 2018 (Dkt. No. 20-20 at 20; Compl. ¶ 181). As represented during oral argument, over 210,000 borrower defense claims now remain pending and the Department has failed to grant or deny a single application since June 2018. This is especially striking considering that between July 2016 and January 20, 2017, the Department had decided approximately 27,996 borrower defenses applications (Compl. ¶ 135). Even if this gaping contrast might possibly be explained in part by the preliminary injunction in Manriquez, it nonetheless evidences the uniform policy of inaction alleged here where the proposed class explicitly excludes Corinthian borrowers who are members of the Manriquez class. According to plaintiffs, the Department “has a legal duty to reach a final decision on each borrower defense assertion” and it is undisputed that — despite the swelling backlog — “it has refused to satisfy that duty for well over a year” (id. ¶¶ 52–76; Dkt. No. 42 at 3).

 

In less than a month after the lawsuit was filed, more than 900 students submitted their testimony to support the certification of this class, and to have their voices heard. The extensive testimony provides a comprehensive summary of the overwhelming harm of the continued debt and stress on students’ lives due to the Department of Education’s refusal to process their claims. Specifically, students reported problems like financial and mental health consequences, and delaying basic life decisions like starting a family or pursuing additional education.

The testimony data show:

  • 96% of students reported that their lives are worse today than before they went to school.
  • 61% of students reported deferring further education
  • 47% of students reported deferring marriage and children
  • 32% of students reported continuing to receive payment demands after submitting their Defense to Repayment
  • 958 days (2.6 years) is the average time students have been waiting for an answer from the U.S. Department of Education on their Borrower Defense applications

 

Click here to view testimonial excerpts and videos from students across the country who were defrauded by for-profit colleges.

For more information on this case, click here.

Amanda’s Everest Institute Story

Amanda Wilson went to Everest College in Chelsea, Massachusetts to get a degree in medical assisting. When the Corinthian-owned school collapsed and was found to have misled students, the Massachusetts Attorney General filed an application with the Department of Education asking it to cancel the loans of all Corinthian students in Massachusetts, citing the for-profit college chain’s extensive fraud. This was in 2015 – now, four years later, these loans still haven’t been cancelled and Amanda is part of the lawsuit Vara v DeVos to force the Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos to act.

This is her student loan truth.

 

What made you decide to attend Everest?

It was a combination of things. My cousin was already enrolled there and I had also seen a lot of ads on TV and online about students’ personal success stories that resonated with me, so I decided to apply for a medical assisting degree.

The advisors were pushy and over the top about getting students to sign up. They were very vague about the financial process and I ended up taking out more loans than I realized. The whole process was confusing and felt very rushed. Looking back now, I realize that the enrollment process should have sparked red flags. But I was young and I trusted the school and my cousin.

 

What was your experience like at Everest?

Right away I felt that the class structure was very disjointed. Because Everest lets people start at any time instead of only at the beginning of a semester, new students would be enrolling and joining classes every month. So instructors would constantly backtrack in order to get the new students up to speed, making the class structure very difficult to really learn anything. It was clearly built around just getting more people in the door and not actually educating them.

 

Did your experience at this school help you obtain a job in the field you studied?

In the beginning, recruiters stressed that there was a 100% success rate among Everest graduates, as advisors were really active in helping with the job search, but that was definitely not true. In my graduating class, I know the majority of us didn’t get any of the help we were promised.

Trying to find a job on our own was really difficult because we quickly realized that a lot of places didn’t accept the Everest degree. Employers felt I didn’t have the right hands-on experience or the hours in the field they required to get the skills they wanted. At that point, it was too late to go back and get those credentials without paying more money and going back to a different school. It made it impossible to gain the experience employers require.

I was never able to find a job using that degree. I continued at the job that I had while I was in school, then eventually, switched to get a job in medical manufacturing, which has nothing to do with medical assisting.

 

How has the debt from this experience impacted your life?

I have a total of $18k in federal and private loans. It’s been a really difficult process, especially realizing that the school cheated us and we got a worthless degree.

The process for trying to get these loans cancelled has been extremely stressful. I know the Attorney General submitted the borrower defense application years ago, but still the Department of Education has put my loans on hold and then back into default twice.

Financially, I can’t plan my life. It’s ruined my credit and I was unable to purchase a house or a car without a cosigner. I’m trying to go back to school and move on from this, but I can’t because of all the problems with my loans.

 

The Department of Education has refused to cancel the loans of thousands of former students of for-profit colleges. They’ve ignored the many thousands of students who filed for borrower defense. What would you say to the Department about the need to cancel these loans?

I don’t think they understand how much people are really struggling as it is. We’re getting our wages garnished and our tax refunds taken. Nobody can get a straight answer on the status of their loans, and the Department continues to collect when they’re not supposed to. It crushes people. We’re stuck. It’s a really difficult place to be, to deal with that mentally and financially.

In a system that forces you to go to school, it’s really discouraging to have this experience. It makes you not want to invest in this system that we’ve been told works for everybody. How can you trust another school to not do the same thing, when you didn’t think this would happen to you in the first place?

 

Why did you decide to join this lawsuit to force the Department to act?

The biggest reason is because the lack of accountability towards the Department of Education. They shouldn’t be able to just ignore students and the law and the Attorney General’s application for borrower defense. It’s unfair. A lot of people worked hard, graduated at the top of their class, and were still left in this spot. We were cheated. It destroys your faith in the government and in our system of education and I think it’s important to stand up to that.

 

 

For more information on Vara v. DeVos, click here.

Major Victory for Defrauded Students as Education Department Is Held in Contempt, Fined

 

“Secretary DeVos has repeatedly and brazenly violated the law to collect for-profit college students’ debts and deny their rights, and today she has been held accountable.”

Toby Merrill, Director

Project on Predatory Student Lending

The Project on Predatory Student Lending secured a critical court ruling on behalf of students defrauded by Corinthian Colleges, as a federal judge held Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in contempt and fined the Department of Education $100,000 for violation of a June 2018 court order prohibiting the Department from collecting on loans from thousands of student borrowers. The ruling is part of a larger class action lawsuit brought by the Project on Predatory Student Lending and Housing and Economic Rights Advocates to obtain debt relief for students defrauded by the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco said that there was “no question” that the Department of Education’s actions violated the preliminary injunction, and that those violations “harmed individual borrowers.” Project on Predatory Student Lending Director Toby Merrill applauded the ruling, saying “Secretary DeVos has repeatedly and brazenly violated the law to collect for-profit college students’ debts and deny their rights, and today she has been held accountable. Thousands of students illegally had their tax refunds seized and wages garnished, and the Department still can’t identify all of the affected students nor refunded the money. The judge is sending a loud and clear message: students have rights under the law and DeVos’ illegal and reckless violation of their rights will not be tolerated.”

Read the Project on Predatory Student Lending’s press release about this important ruling, and see coverage in the Boston Globe, Washington Post, and New York Times.

Sharing Insights To Protect Low-income Taxpayers, Tenants, and Victims of Predatory For-Profit Schools

Attorneys at the Legal Services Center represent thousands of low-income clients every year to protect their rights. Our attorneys also bring their expertise and passion to bear through publications that raise awareness of critical issues and promote our client community’s legal rights. Recent publications from LSC staff members have covered topics ranging from protections for low-income taxpayers, people victimized by predatory for-profit schools, and tenants facing economic exploitation.

This summer, Victoria Roytenberg of LSC’s Project on Predatory Student Lending published “How Trustees Can Make Sure Former Students of Predatory For-Profit Schools Are Served by the Bankruptcy Process”in the American Bankruptcy Trustee Journal (Summer 2019 issue, Vol. 35, Issue 03). In this article, Roytenberg describes five ways bankruptcy trustees can work effectively with counsel for students to help what is the largest and most important group of creditors in the for-profit schools scandal.

Toby Merrill, Eileen Connor and Josh Rovenger, all of the Project on Predatory Student Lending, were among the co-authors of an article on the Harvard Law Review blog entitled “For-Profit Schools’ Predatory Practices and Students of Color: A Mission to Enroll Rather than Educate.” In it they highlight the particularly pernicious ways in which for-profit schools have targeted racial minorities, those who are the first generation in their family to go to college, and other low-income individuals — and how the federal Department of Education has abetted them in this effort. Read the blog here.

Keith Fogg of LSC’s Federal Tax Clinic, has been a longtime editor of Effectively Representing Your Client before the IRS, the desktop bible for advocates representing low-income taxpayers before the IRS. Together with two co-authors, he also writes the widely followed blog Procedurally Taxing that regularly considers developments in regulations and case law that affect tax procedures and tax administration. You can read the blog at https://procedurallytaxing.com/

And LSC’s housing specialists Julia Devanthery and Maureen McDonagh have written chapters for the manual Legal Tactics: Private Housing, an easy-to-understand, comprehensive handbook on Massachusetts tenants’ rights for lay audiences, edited by Annette R. Duke of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. This manual, available free and online, focuses on private rental housing and answers questions on everything from security deposits and last month’s rent to rent and utilities, repairs, evictions, housing discrimination, lead poisoning, mobile homes, and tenants in foreclosed properties. You can find the manual here.

Alum Brings Innovative Consumer Protection Project to LSC

Emily Wilkinson, JD ’17 shares how her time as a student in LSC’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic influences her work as an attorney and motivated her to return to LSC as a Skadden Fellow. 

Emily Wilkinson first came through the doors of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center (LSC) as a law student. Before law school, Wilkinson worked as a paralegal at a Washington, DC-based civil rights law firm whose practice focused on fair lending, fair housing, and credit discrimination. The experience sparked Wilkinson’s interest in consumer protection as a civil rights issue and illuminated the lasting effects predatory lending and lack of legal representation can have in the lives of low-income individuals and families.

When she arrived at Harvard Law School (HLS) in 2014, Wilkinson quickly immersed herself in public interest work, joining the Tenant Advocacy Project, a student practice organization that works to protect the rights of public housing tenants. Her interest in lending fairness and justice brought her to LSC’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic.

Emily Wilkinson

Emily Wilkinson JD ’17

Wilkinson relished the hands-on experience she gained at the clinic, and the opportunity to interact directly with clients and learn the day-to-day realities of working in a community-based law office. During her first semester in the clinic, she worked on a case involving a lender that had issued predatory and illegal loans with interest rates exceeding 100 percent, a violation of state law. The case was later taken up by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and ended with a settlement that provided $2 million in debt relief for low-income consumers, including many disabled veterans. The California-based lender in the case, Future Income Payments, was barred from making future loans in Massachusetts, a result that clearly demonstrates the broad and lasting impact of LSC’s consumer advocacy work.

In her two semesters as a clinical student, Wilkinson gained experience at the elemental skills of being a lawyer—interviewing clients, conducting legal research, drafting demand letters and court filings, preparing arguments, and representing clients in state and federal court. Through her work on behalf of clients and her participation in the Consumer Protection and Predatory Lending Clinic’s seminar—where students reviewed and discussed topics and cases relevant to their practice and the clinic’s work—Wilkinson learned of the pressing access-to-justice issues faced by consumers in the Massachusetts court system, issues that would serve as the basis for her future work.

In Massachusetts, where the National Consumer Law Center estimates that 23 percent of residents have at least one debt in collections, private debt collectors and their attorneys have been allowed to manipulate the court system to their advantage, intimidate consumers into signing unjust agreements with predatory terms, and even operate outside the law without consequence.

After graduating and completing a year-long clerkship at the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Wilkinson was selected for a Skadden Fellowship, which supports early-career attorneys to work full-time at civil rights and legal services organizations around the country. For her fellowship, Wilkinson decided to return to LSC, designing a fellowship project to increase access to justice for Boston-area consumers facing debt collection. Although Wilkinson finds herself in LSC’s Jamaica Plain office with a new title, she’s driven by the same fundamental purpose that brought her to HLS to begin with, to pursue justice on behalf of consumers whose futures are threatened by predatory debt collectors.

Wilkinson’s work focuses on individual representation of low- and moderate-income consumers facing debt collection in small claims court, district court, and Boston Municipal Court. She has deliberately chosen to represent clients with smaller debts—ranging anywhere from $300 to several thousand dollars. “While it might not sound like a lot relative to other debts, a debt like that is a life-changing amount of money for many, many people, especially those who can’t afford legal representation,” she explained.

Going to court can be a confusing and intimidating process for anyone, but is especially challenging for low- and moderate-income consumers who have no legal help and who might have limited literacy and English-language skills. The system is ripe for abuse, and court officers exacerbate the existing power imbalance, directing consumers to negotiate with debt collectors’ attorneys before the case is even heard by a judge.

Small claims court, originally intended as a space for the efficient resolution of conflicts between individuals, has effectively been taken over by debt buying companies, many from out of state, who flood the court with debt collection cases. According to the Midas Collaborative, in 2015 alone, debt collectors filed over 66,000 cases in Massachusetts small claims and district courts. Unfortunately for Massachusetts consumers, these companies and their lawyers aren’t always required to provide evidence of the validity of the debt before a judgment is entered.

When consumers don’t appear in court to fight a debt collection lawsuit, which happens in the majority of debt cases in Massachusetts, a default judgment is entered. This default judgment—enforceable for 20 years—records the consumer as legally owing the debt and allows debt collectors to charge 12 percent interest and even garnish wages to collect payment. LSC’s Consumer Protection and Predatory Lending Clinic has been involved in legislative advocacy around these practices, supporting statewide efforts to decrease the lifespan of and interest rate for judgments, among other protections.

One of Wilkinson’s cases that is emblematic of the challenges consumers face in Massachusetts courts is that of Elizabeth,* a woman with a disability who was defending against a debt collector seeking more than $25,000. The out-of-state company that filed the case refused to produce documentation that they were legally permitted to collect debt in Massachusetts. Finally, after months of pressure, they agreed to settle the case, with no financial liability for Elizabeth. If not for Wilkinson’s work, a judgment may have been entered against Elizabeth, saddling her with years of debt and accumulating interest she could not pay, and the company would have continued to prey on vulnerable consumers unchallenged.

In addition to defending individual clients when they are sued, Wilkinson undertakes affirmative claims when debt collectors aren’t following state and federal laws related to debt collection practices, working to enforce the laws that are already in place to protect the state’s consumers.

She also conducts community education, giving presentations to consumer advocacy organizations and community groups about consumer rights, common debt collection defenses and rules debt collectors are required to follow, with the goal of having more people show up to court and avoid the lasting consequences that come with default judgments. She also plans to start a Lawyer for the Day program in small claims court, similar to the one that exists in Boston Housing Court and elsewhere, which would provide legal advice to unrepresented litigants facing debt collection.

Roger Bertling, Director of LSC’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic, who first supervised Wilkinson when she was a law student, says that having her back in the office is an asset for clients and colleagues alike. “It’s always great to have a former student join our staff at LSC, especially one as dedicated, thoughtful and hard-working as Emily. Since her first day as a clinical student, she has been a great advocate for her clients and a joy to work with.”

For Wilkinson, returning to LSC to work on consumer law issues allows her to enhance what she learned as a student, be responsible for her own slate of cases while benefiting from the expertise of LSC’s experienced attorneys, and find new ways to protect consumers in court and by changing policy. Said Wilkinson, “Being a relatively new lawyer and having the support of such knowledgeable attorneys and teachers here at LSC is an experience you can’t get anywhere else. It allows me to do my best work for clients.”

* Name has been change to protect client privacy.

My Student Loan Truth: Lyndsie’s Art Institute Story

“It’s wrong and I’m not going to sit down and shut up about it.”

 

Lyndsie Ross attended the Art Institute of California, where she was pressured into signing up for a design program and significant student loans. She soon realized that the school was a “joke” and her degree was worthless, but the Department of Education still refuses to cancel her fraudulent debt.

This is Lyndsie’s Student Loan Truth.

 

What made you decide to attend the Art Institute? 

I was living in Portland, Oregon at the time. I went to the Art Institute of Portland because I was interested in a career in graphic design and they advertised being a really high-end program. They pressured me into signing up for the Industrial Design program, but I quickly realized I didn’t have drawing skills needed for that kind and nobody was willing to help with that skill. When I moved back home to Sacramento a year later, the Portland campus encouraged me to transfer. I assumed it was just the program that was wrong for me, so enrolled at the Art Institute of California, Sacramento and switched to graphic design there.

 

What was your experience like at Art Institute of California, Sacramento?

The Portland campus was a little older and more established, so I assumed Sacramento would be similar. But it was paltry. There was almost no equipment and only 5 teachers who taught everything. I figured out about ¾ of the way through that this was a fraudulent situation, but felt at that point I had to finish and make the best of it. At one point, students even gathered signatures to try to petition to get the bad teachers fired. We were angry that we were spending so much money and time on a bogus education and were not learning anything.

 

Did your experience at this school help you obtain a job in the field you studied?

Absolutely not. Career services was a joke. They sent us Craigslist ads for job placement and many of them were entry-level positions that required no degree or real design skill. I was told at interviews that they were shocked by my portfolio, which was something that Art Institute promoted as a sure ticket to a job. Some places wouldn’t interview me at all with that school on my resume.  Eventually I secured some in-house design work, but I got that job because I hustled and networked on my own, and I got lucky.

 

How has the debt from this experience impacted your life?

I’ve been in a situation for years now where I am trapped by my financial responsibilities with this student loan debt. I couldn’t move up or move on in my career because of this debt. I’ve had to work a lot of side hustles to make ends meet.

 

The Department of Education has refused to cancel the loans of thousands of former students of for-profit colleges. It ignore the many thousands of students who filed for borrower defense. What would you say to the Department about the need to cancel these loans?

It’s extremely disheartening. They’re punishing students who were just trying to better themselves and do the right thing. We shouldn’t have to put life on hold until these student loans are cancelled.

It’s wrong. I’m not going to sit down and shut up about it.

The Latest Reports on Betsy DeVos Scamming For-Profit College Students

ITT and Corinthian Borrowers Continue to Fight for Relief as the Department of Education Skirts the Law Every Step of the Way

At the end of last week, there was a great deal of news from the U.S. Department of Education — reinforcing that it skirts the law and epitomizes corruption — and much of it flew under the radar.

Automatic Closed School Discharge for 7,000 ITT Borrowers

Betsy DeVos announced that the Department finally began to process automatic closed school discharges for certain borrowers who were cheated by ITT Tech and were enrolled when the company shut down. The Department estimated it would cancel $95 million in loans to ITT students.

The announcement followed demands from elected officials like Senator Dick Durbin, Senator Elizabeth Warren and other senate democrats for the Department to follow the law and process these discharges. 

The Department has fought against discharging bogus student loans from ITT Tech for years. Ultimately, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Department were mandated to process these automatic closed school discharges after a successful lawsuit brought by students (Bauer v. DeVos) ended the illegal delay of the 2016 borrower defense rule, and elected officials like Senator Dick Durbin demanded it.

While this is good news for these select students, many more are still waiting for justice. And the Department of Education continues to go out of its way to prevent them from getting it.

  • Approximately 45,000 students were attending ITT Tech when it closed in September 2016, and were left with massive debt and no diploma. Approximately 16,000 ITT students have already individually applied for and been granted closed school discharges. The Department’s announcement covers about 7,000 additional borrowers.
  • By the end of 2018, more than 19,000 former ITT students had applied for borrower defense, and because of the Department’s inaction, their bogus debts are still hanging over their heads. Secretary DeVos needs to follow the law and cancel the debts of all ITT students once and for all
  • Just three weeks ago, Secretary DeVos published a new borrower defense rulegutting protections for student borrowers and eliminating the automatic closed school discharge provision. This rule would leave students without this safety net if their school abruptly closes.

Illegal Collection on more than 16,000 Corinthian Borrowers

At the same time, Secretary DeVos admitted in a court filing that the Department of Education continued to collect from thousands of former Corinthian Colleges students in direct violation of a federal court order.

According to new numbers revealed by the filing, thousands of students were hurt by DeVos’ illegal actions.

  • The filing was made in a class action lawsuit by Corinthian Colleges students represented by the Project and HERA, Calvillo Manriquez v. DeVos.
  • Last year in this case, the federal court ordered Secretary DeVos to stop collecting the loans of thousands of students who were defrauded by Corinthian Colleges. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
  • Instead, the Department demanded incorrect loan payment from 16,034 Of those students, 3,289 borrowers made one or more loan payments because of these demands, which they were not actually supposed to pay. The Department has harmed the credit of 847 non-defaulted borrowers. The Department subjected 1,808 borrowers to involuntary debt collection by garnishing their wages or taking their tax refunds or benefits.

This is part of a pattern by Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education. They callously strip away basic student protections and illegally collect on student loans, all while blaming the courts, blaming servicers, and blaming the students themselves. The court will address these revelations by the Department at a status hearing on October 7.

Click here for the Project’s statement on this news.

Student Loan Truth: Jessica’s Art Institute Story

Jessica is a plaintiff in the lawsuit Sweet v DeVos, in which she and six other former for-profit college students are suing the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos, seeking to force the agency to follow the law and issue the debt relief to which the former students are entitled. The plaintiffs are suing on behalf of more than 158,000 former students who have filed applications for borrower defense to repayment because their schools cheated them.

How did you hear about New England Institute of Art (NEIA)?

After getting my associates degree at Mount Wachusett Community College, I really wanted to continue my education. I was the only person in my immediate family to go to college and it was important for me to keep going. At Mt. Wachusett, I relied on my advisors all the time, so I was expecting a similar experience at NEIA. I trusted Art Institute advisors to help me make the right decisions for my education.

What made you decide to attend NEIA?

I really wanted to be visual effects video editor. When I contacted NEIA, I was told their Media Arts and Animation program would prepare me for a career in visual effects, even though they advertised the program as focused solely on gaming and animation. The advisors told me their program was difficult to get into, but that graduates were highly sought after in their fields. They created a lot of pressure and a sense of urgency for me to apply right away. I didn’t find out until much later that none of this was true.

What did the school tell you about getting a job after the program?

During the whole process, NEIA consistently claimed they had the connections I would need to get a job in the industry. They said the name of the school carried weight in the visual effects industry and it would be easy to find a job. I went on a tour and they made a big deal about having a high tech green screen that students would be able to use. Later on, as a student, I learned that we weren’t actually allowed to use the green screen. Instead, they had us tape green paper to the wall to film our projects.

What was your experience like once you started attending New England Institute of Art?

Everything I was promised was a lie, just like the green screen. I was told that I’d be using state-of-the-art technology in class, but instead, we were either given old and obsolete equipment or we had to make our own. The classes were a joke.

Did your experience at this school help you obtain a job in the field you studied?

Part of their pitch to get me to go to NEIA was how great their connections to the industry were. However, the reality when I got there was the exact opposite of what I had been told. When I reached out to the Career Services Office about getting an internship in visual effects, I was either given no response or a link to Craigslist with a document entitled “Tips for Applying to a Job from Craigslist”. I never found a permanent job in the field. People wouldn’t hire me because of my degree. I’m currently working on my own small business.

Did going to New England Institute of Art make your life better or worse?

It made my life significantly worse. My credit is destroyed, I can’t get a car or a house. My mental health has suffered. I refuse to get married because I’m afraid of associating my partner with my debt. I debated not having kids at all. My life has been placed on hold. It’s devastating.

How long have you been waiting for an answer on your Borrower Defense application?

I filed for Borrower Defense to Repayment in 2015. Four years later, I still don’t have an answer. Just radio silence. The debt is bad enough, and then adding even more uncertainty from not getting an answer is devastating. I can’t plan for my future.

Some policy-makers doubt that for-profit colleges are a problem – what would you say to them?

I would tell them that despite putting in the time and effort at school, the degree that NEIA gave me is useless. I can’t get a job because companies don’t trust the school. I can’t go back to school because other schools don’t recognize my NEIA degree. A bank wouldn’t give me a loan to further my education if I asked.

The Department of Education has refused to cancel the loans of thousands of former students of for-profit colleges. They ignore the many thousands of students who filed for borrower defense. What would you say to them about the need to cancel these loans?

It’s their job to do the right thing. I’m beyond disappointed about the fact that the government isn’t doing anything to stop these schools from defrauding students in the first place. Students should be able to trust their schools and advisors. The fact that there is no protection for a vulnerable 21 year old signing a loan for the first time and being taken advantage of isn’t fair or responsible. You shouldn’t need a lawyer to be able to go to colle

My Student Loan Truth: Theresa’s Brooks Institute Story

When Theresa graduated from the Brooks Institute in 2006, she never imagined that she would find herself suing the U.S. Department of Education years later over her student loan debt. But after being cheated by her school and years of waiting for answers, she is a plaintiff in Sweet v DeVos – representing over 158,000 students who were cheated by their schools and have been ignored by Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education. This is her story.

 

My name is Theresa Sweet.

On the day I graduated from college, my fellow students and I were lined up in a cordoned off area, under the perfect Santa Barbara sun, waiting to enter the theater and accept our diplomas. Myself and several other students turned our heads toward a commotion beyond the ropes only to see an exasperated administrator tailing my father, sternly telling him that he needed to wait until after the ceremony to speak with his student. My mounting concern quickly turned to laughter when he hurried over, gave me a quick hug, and said, “I just wanted to tell you again how proud I am of you.” That moment remains among a literal handful of times in my life that I ever saw my father cry.

While The Brooks Institute (then owned by Career Education Corporation) is no longer in operation, I know that there are plenty of predatory, for profit trade schools still operating in California today. I am here today to share my story in the hope that I can prevent others from living through a similar experience.

I attended the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara and Ventura, CA from January 2003 to June 2006, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Photography. Once a source of pride, my education quickly became a ruinous source of personal and financial stress.

Since graduation, I have never had a job where I used the education I received at Brooks. I have never had a job that has helped me earn an income that is remotely close to what is necessary to pay off these loans. I can’t finance a car, much less a home. It is unlikely that I will ever be able to marry or adopt children as I would essentially be condemning my family to a lifetime of poverty.

I currently work as a Certified Nursing Assistant, and I would love to be able to further my education and obtain a Nursing degree. Unfortunately, Brooks, like so many other for-profits, actively misled students as to the transferability of the course credits they earned. In addition, Brooks also made sure to guide students to borrow the maximum amount of Federal Student Loans allowed in pursuit of a Bachelor’s Degree, making me ineligible for student loans and financial aid to pursue nursing.

Brooks used unethical, high pressure sales tactics such as pain points about me being the first person in my immediate family to attend and graduate from college. They relied on the fact that there was no one in my life who could help me ask the right questions. They made a point of never answering questions via email, only over the phone. They created the false impression that the admissions process was competitive when, in fact, all they cared about what getting the maximum number of students enrolled and filling out student loans applications. In reality, Brooks admitted anyone with a high school diploma or a GED, as long as that person could get a student loan.

Although I had no way of knowing it at the time, after I graduated I found out that the “Admissions Counselors” were just commissioned sales people. They weren’t paid to give me accurate information about the school, to tell me how much it could cost me, or to counsel me on whether the school would help me reach my goals. They were only paid to get me to enroll.

After graduation, the “Career Services” office regularly contacted me with financially meaningless opportunities for unpaid jobs that they found on the local Craigslist page.

Perhaps worst of all, Admissions Counselors blatantly lied about the employment rates of students after graduation as well as the amount of money these graduates were making, knowing that the lies they were telling were giving students false impression that they would be able to pay back their student loans. You wouldn’t have to look very hard to find evidence of all of this.

In short, while I worked multiple jobs to stay at school, Brooks and CEC were happily raking profits by defrauding thousands of students. And NO ONE was stopping them. No one was alerting the public or prospective students. No one was there to help any of us recoup our financial losses, to say nothing of the disastrous effect this high level of debt has on personal relationships.

If this seems outrageous to you, GOOD! It is outrageous, and it isn’t hyperbole. There are hundreds of former Brooks Students who have already filed Borrowers Defense to Repayment claims, and that number is sure to grow. I filed my own paperwork in 2016. I’ve been waiting for a response for three years. It is one of 158,110 applications that sits at the Department of Education unanswered right now.

The Department of Education is determined to sit on their hands, doing nothing to help. So us students have been forced to turn to the courts for justice. We are done waiting.

 

By Theresa Sweet

 

Learn more about the lawsuit Sweet v DeVos