At this time last year, all signs were pointing to a for-profit college industry in crisis, if not the death throes.
But the industry has found new life through aggressive advocates in government and steadily rising stock prices with the election of Donald Trump, who operated an unaccredited for-profit education scheme and recently settled fraud cases filed by former Trump University students for $25 million.
Meanwhile, Angie Bloomfield is still reeling from the for-profit education boom of the 2010’s. Bloomfield lives in Iowa and owes the federal government more than $100,000 in loans for a bachelor’s degree from Ashford University, a for-profit college, and work toward a master’s degree she has yet to finish at the University of the Rockies, another for-profit institution. She has no real options to get her money back.
Bloomfield, 40, says she was about 18 months into her master’s program last year when she discovered the University of the Rockies was not accredited to grant professional licenses in family counseling. The university’s parent corporation is San Diego-based Bridgepoint Education.
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller also investigated Ashford University, another Bridgepoint property, for a similar bait and switch. Ashford’s only physical campus was in Iowa.
The Ashford case ended in a settlement for more than $7 million but it didn’t include Bridgepoint’s other schools, or Bloomfield’s undergraduate program, so Bloomfield wasn’t eligible for any settlement money. Nor does she think she could afford a private attorney. She now makes $13.50 an hour as a parent educator with an early childhood program and has five children of her own.
“I’ve met a lot of great people and it’s a great program,” Bloomfield said of her job. “But it’s not a program that reflects my $100,000 student loan balance.”
The for-profit college industry thrives on federally insured student loans – getting a quarter of all federal student loan dollars, or $32.2 billion, at the beginning of this decade – leaving in their wake students deeply in debt. Yet only a small fraction of students who complain they were defrauded by their schools have recouped their losses.
“I don’t know how they can sleep at night,” Bloomfield said of officials at University of the Rockies. “They promised to deliver a life-changing education and they aren’t being held accountable for it!”
There are those who have tried to hold these businesses accountable. Over the past decade, there have been at least 65 state and federal investigations against for-profit colleges. More than 25 of these investigations have ended in court settlements or judgments worth over $1.5 billion.
Yet to date, fewer than 35,000 people across the nation have been confirmed to have gotten any money back from their for-profit schools because of these court actions. Awards for students range from just over $5 to as much as $55,000 for a lucky few, with the average award amount around $4,000.
There is no single explanation for why these investigations and lawsuits have brought relief to so few. In some cases, settlements were too small to meaningfully help. In others, colleges went bankrupt or reorganized to avoid paying up. In still others, enforcement actions sought to change the behavior of the colleges rather than recover losses for consumers.
Settlements and judgments against the Corinthian Colleges chain, which is based in Santa Ana, California, account for the lion’s share of the money won by the state and federal government. However, Corinthian was allowed to discharge that debt in bankruptcy. American taxpayers are therefore footing the bill for just over 23,000 former Corinthian students who have had all their federal debt forgiven.
It is difficult to correctly estimate just how many former students might have been victims of consumer fraud by for-profit schools. More than 3 million people in the country are expected to enroll in for-profit colleges this academic year alone. Many of them are likely happy with their education. But the White House says another 840,000 people go to schools that perform so poorly they could be shut out of federal student loan programs.
“We have yet to speak with a single Corinthian student who wasn’t promised well-paid employment in their field after graduation during recruitment,” Zinner said. “And we haven’t talked to any who actually got it, no matter how well they did in school.”
Some settlements reached with for-profit colleges tote large awards but translate into little relief on a student-by-student basis because of the way they are structured.
A multistate settlement last year worth about $103 million in loan forgiveness against Education Management Corporation, for example, may benefit as many as 80,000 people across the country in an attempt to curb predatory lending by for-profit colleges. The Pittsburgh-based school operator won’t send checks to students, though. Instead, it will stop collecting on a portion of student loans.
The settlement is therefore worth an estimated $1,300 in uncollected debt per student, an award that doesn’t take into account how much each student owes or has already paid.
“It’s an outrageous situation,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said about the federal government’s inability to be an effective check on the for-profit college sector. In an interview last spring, he said the settlements, “don’t nearly touch the federal subsidy that was given to the owners of these schools. The students end up with the debt, the schools end up with the money and the taxpayers end up as the ultimate losers.”
One reason so few schools are being held accountable is because only a small band of motivated state attorneys general’s offices and federal agencies have both the ability and willingness to bring these cases. These offices are better suited and more able than advocacy groups or most private attorneys to undertake consumer protection investigations of this scale. Even the most motivated attorneys general have to contend with rules unfriendly to students and an adversarial justice system where it takes years to resolve almost anything.
Bloomfield, the former University of the Rockies student in Iowa, summed up how she feels about the effort in her state to curb fraud by the for-profit college industry.
“I don’t feel like they did anything,” she said at first, as her school was not included in the settlement. She reconsidered almost immediately, however, and added: “They probably are addressing the problem. Here you see all the negative publicity so they might have prevented something like this for the future.”
As for herself, Bloomfield said she was “misled, misinformed and basically taken for my money.”
The 2014 Iowa settlement was among the most generous in the country on a per-student basis, with some students receiving a full refund for as much as $55,000. Yet it likely left behind students with legitimate complaints just because of the nature of state attorney general’s actions.
A class action lawsuit brought by a private attorney has the job of trying to find as many people affected by a certain wrongdoing as possible and then trying to get the biggest award for them. State attorneys general are busy law enforcement operations charged with looking out for the interests of their entire state. Consumer protection is only one of their responsibilities. If they can stop lawbreaking and influence an industry, that is sometimes a big enough win.
In this context, James Tierney, a former Maine attorney general and now a Harvard Law School professor, called cash awards for individual students “a bonus.”
Tierney said predatory industries practice “conscious and rational avoidance of strong enforcement,” meaning they hop across state lines to avoid lawsuits. In Iowa, for example, a year after the settlement against it, Ashford shut down its Iowa campus and moved exclusively to online education.
In a legal landscape so easy for for-profit college companies to outmaneuver, stronger regulation or tighter control of the federal student-loan dollars that subsidize the industry seem more likely to curb predatory behavior than the threat of legal action.
But the ink is barely dry on the set of Obama administration final regulations that would hold for-profit colleges accountable for their students’ debt when there has been wrongdoing, an action aimed at protecting taxpayer dollars. These rules are set to take effect in July but can be shelved by the incoming administration.
Back in Iowa, Bloomfield is unsure how to proceed. She is paying back her loans to the University of the Rockies on an income-based repayment plan even as she feels cheated out of an education.
She is also preparing to send two teenage sons into adulthood, but perhaps not to college. She wants them to be very careful “if they decide to go that route” because she has lost faith in education institutions and in the consumer protection apparatus.
“I just think no matter what you do or where you go it’s all about the almighty dollar.”
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nadia Wynter.
Sarah Alvarez founded and runs Outlier Media, a journalism service that delivers data reporting and valuable information to low-income news consumers over SMS and message apps. She is a former lawyer and public radio reporter and was a 2015 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University.