The U.S. Education Department said it will forgive $150 million in federal student loans under an Obama-era rule that Secretary Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s pick, had tried to block.
Department officials began notifying 15,000 students Friday that their loans will automatically be erased because they attended colleges that closed while they were still in school or shortly after they finished. About half of them attended campuses under the for-profit Corinthian Colleges chain, which collapsed in 2015 amid widespread accusations of fraud.
There are still more than 100,000 other students who say they were swindled by their schools and are waiting on the Education Department to decide their applications for loan relief.
The 15,000 students are eligible for loan relief under a 2016 rule that was intended to make it easier for defrauded students to get their loans cleared. Part of the rule granted automatic loan forgiveness to students who attended colleges that closed more than three years in the past and who didn’t attend another school afterward.
DeVos delayed the rule in 2017 after a California association of for-profit colleges filed a legal challenge, and she later moved to scrap the rule entirely and proposed a replacement that would have eliminated automatic loan discharges and raised the bar to prove fraud by schools.
But a federal judge ruled in September that her delay was unlawful, siding with Democratic attorneys general from more than a dozen states who sued over the postponement. A month later, the same judge dismissed another challenge by the California association, effectively clearing the way for the rule to take effect.
DeVos has continued to oppose the rule, calling it “bad policy,” and says she still plans to write new rules to protect borrowers and taxpayers. Still, the Obama-era law could remain in effect until at least July 2020, when any new policy written by DeVos could take effect.
Groups that represent borrowers called the automatic discharges a victory, but they said it's just the first step in the rule's implementation.
James Kvaal, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, said the initial round of discharges was “welcome news” for the borrowers it will help.
“But these 15,000 borrowers are a small fraction of those eligible for loan discharges because their schools closed or committed illegal acts. It's long past time for the Department of Education to meet its legal obligations to students,” Kvaal said.
Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees education, said she was “pleased” that the department has started implementing the rule.
“This is a good first step, but it's not good enough — and I call on Secretary DeVos to abandon her attempts to rewrite the borrower defense rule to let for-profit colleges off the hook, and instead fully implement the current rule and provide relief to more than 100,000 borrowers who were cheated out of their education and savings,” Murray said.
The 2016 rule was created to improve the loan forgiveness process following the closure of Corinthian Colleges, which left thousands of students stuck with loans and little to show for that debt. It was part of the Obama administration's broader effort to root out schools that misled students and to police the sector through new regulation.
But DeVos said that the rules made it too easy for students to shirk their debt, and that they left taxpayers on the hook.
Separately, she has delayed another 2016 rule intended to weed out for-profit college programs that left students unable to pay off their loans, and she recently reversed the Obama administration's decision to cut ties with an accrediting agency that supervises dozens of for-profit college chains and has been accused of lax oversight.
DeVos has been an advocate of for-profit schools; as of January 2017, just before her term as Education secretary began, her government ethics forms showed she has investments in companies connected to the industry, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
Of the $150 million in automatic loan relief, $80 million will go to former students of Corinthian Colleges, which included the Everest, Heald and WyoTech college chains. The department did not identify other schools tied to the relief.
Along with Corinthian, several other major for-profit chains have fallen in recent years. Others that followed include ITT Technical Institute and, most recently, Education Corp. of America, which announced its closure Dec. 5.