fb-pixel Skip to main content
Yvonne Abraham

Judge teaches Education Secretary Betsy DeVos a lesson

It’s clear whose side Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is on, says Yvonne Abraham.Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images/File/AFP/Getty Images

There are so many outrages to keep track of with the Trump administration, so many officials determined to gut the very departments they lead, that it’s hard to keep up.

For example, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos still exists. Did you forget that or, like me, wish you could? This particular fox continues to guard a henhouse crammed with students battling soaring debts, a crushing burden that harms the entire economy.

Luckily, the judiciary also still exists, and it is not yet completely stacked with underqualified Trump toadies. On Thursday evening, a federal judge in San Francisco held DeVos in contempt and slapped her department with a $100,000 fine for continuing to squeeze victims of shady for-profit colleges to pay back their loans after she had been ordered to stop.


The students on whom DeVos’s department continued to inflict pain have already been victimized plenty. They were lied to and exploited by “colleges” that preyed on vulnerable people, many of them poor. Those schools recruited applicants with promises of stellar educations, and help finding well-paying jobs upon graduation, and encouraged students to take out loans to pay for it all.

The colleges took the money — a billion dollars in student aid — then ran, pretty much.

“They said they would help me start my career, and put me on a path to provide for my son,” said Amanda Kulka, now 30. “They pressured me into getting the loans to pay for it.”

The single parent from Dorchester borrowed $9,000, and got precious little for it. She wanted to qualify to work in medical administration, but instructors at the school’s Brighton campus seemed incompetent, and she ended up teaching herself, mostly. She was never asked to open most of the many textbooks Corinthian required her to buy. She couldn’t leave, she said: way too much already invested. “I had to make the best out of it.”


After graduating, no surprise, she got none of the job placement help the school had promised her. It took her a year to find work, and even after she did (she now works at a health insurer) it was impossible to make her loan repayments and provide for her son, she said.

Kulka’s story isn’t unique. Hundreds of thousands of students were deceived by Corinthian and other for-profit colleges for years. The whole thing came crashing down in 2015, when so many broken promises had piled up that the Obama administration announced it would forgive the federal debts of Corinthian students. But inertia outran good intentions, and few students found relief by the time Obama left office

Then came the Administration of Great Undoing, and DeVos, who has financial ties to for-profit education. Not so fast, she said to the 200,000 or so victims hoping to be released from debts they incurred on their way to questionable credentials: Most of you are still on the hook.

The Project on Predatory Student Lending at Harvard Law School sued, and that was supposed to freeze collections. Except the department continued to put the squeeze on 16,000 students, even garnishing some of their wages and tax refunds.

“They have been cheated and lied to by both the schools and the government,” said Toby Merrill, director of the Project. The Department said billing the students had been an innocent mistake, and that they have returned the payments.


But DeVos has repeatedly made it clear whose side she is on here: the predators’.

Meanwhile Kulka’s loan continues to hang over her, affecting all of her decisions, like how much rent she takes on, and whether she goes to a real college to advance her career.

“Every paycheck I get, I worry they’re going to take it,” she said.

It will take a massive policy shift to deal with the problem of student debt in this country. But as Merrill points out, righting what has gone wrong for the tens of thousands of victims she represents is possible right now, under current law.

All it requires is an education secretary who actually cares about students.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.