In 1995, the Department of Education started the Borrower Defense to Repayment program. It was built to allow students deceived by dishonest academic institutions to be forgiven their student loans. In 2016, the Obama administration finalized rules for the program, making that forgiveness a requirement for students of for-profit schools that lost their accreditation due to deceptive recruitment practices.
In 2017, when Betsy DeVos took over as head of the U.S. Department of Education, she forced the DoE to gut the program by illegally using IRS data to form its own private list of who is and isn’t eligible. When ordered to stop this by U.S. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim, DeVos simply stopped the DoE from processing Borrower Defense applications while the Department of Education continued to pursue collections.
“Secretary DeVos continues to show that she thinks she and the Department of Education are above the law,” Toby Merrill, the director at the Project on Predatory Student Lending, a legal aid group representing the students, told The Washington Post. “Let’s be clear about the facts: The department admitted that it blatantly violated a court order that we won.”
In 2018, in the wake of the collapse of the massive for-profit education chain Corinthian Colleges, a suit was filed against the DoE and DeVos personally to cease impeding student loan forgiveness, and in fact to stop collections on all student loans used to attend any of the schools under the Corinthian umbrella, giving a little aid to the tens of thousands of students left in debt for an education they couldn’t complete, or even transfer their credits to another school.
DeVos, in a move typical for the current administration, ignored the ruling. The DoE progressed to garnishing wages and tax refunds, affecting around 1,800 people in 2019.
Given DeVos’s obstruction and refusal to follow the judge’s order, consumer advocates took DeVos back to court for the violations. Judge Kim said she was “astounded” at the DoE’s ongoing violations of her very clear court order. “At best it is gross negligence, at worst it’s an intentional flouting of my order,” said Judge Kim. “I’m not sending anyone to jail yet, but it’s good to know I have that ability.”
An attorney for the DoE has told Judge Kim that this time, they will comply with the original court order. But that’s what they said last time, too. And the Department is busy finalizing a second rewrite of the Borrower Defense to Repayment rules which would, of course, significantly weaken the program.
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