Facing a federal lawsuit and mounting pressure to act, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Friday said she will forgive loans for more than 1,500 borrowers who attended a pair of for-profit colleges that shut down last year.
Students who attended the Art Institute of Colorado and the Illinois Institute of Art from Jan. 20, 2018, through the end of last year will have their federal student loans canceled, DeVos said, and students who attended another 24 schools owned by the same company can get loans erased if they enrolled after June 29, 2018.
The decision involves schools under the chain of Dream Center colleges, which collapsed last year and shuttered campuses across the nation.
DeVos has faced mounting criticism over her handling of federal loan forgiveness programs, which were expanded by the Obama administration following the collapse of the Corinthian Colleges and other for-profit college chains accused of lying to students to get them to enroll.
Under DeVos, the Education Department has stopped processing claims from students who say they were defrauded by their schools, leaving tens of thousands of borrowers in limbo as they seek loan cancellations. DeVos has also moved to tighten eligibility rules, prompting backlash from Democrats and a flurry of lawsuits from students and advocacy groups.
In the latest case, a federal lawsuit against the Education Department said it illegally released federal student aid to the Colorado and Illinois schools even after they lost the seal of approval from their accreditor. Losing approval should have made the schools ineligible for funding, the suit says, but instead they were allowed to keep operating without telling students that the institutions were in trouble.
But the department Friday shifted blame to the accrediting group, the Higher Learning Commission, saying it assigned the schools a ‘‘newly developed and improperly defined accreditation status.’’ The department said it believes the schools should not have lost their accreditation and that, by revoking it, the accreditor left students with tarnished credits that might not be accepted by other schools.
‘‘The department is committed to holding institutions and accreditors accountable to the students they serve,’’ DeVos said in a statement. ‘‘In this instance, students were failed and deserve to be made whole.’’
The Higher Learning Commission did not directly respond to DeVos’s allegations but applauded her decision to provide relief.
‘‘HLC’s policy requires institutions to promptly inform their students and other stakeholders regarding any change to their accreditation status,’’ the group said. ‘‘In this instance, the institutions did not appropriately inform their students as was required and specifically instructed by HLC.’’
Students of former Dream Center schools sued DeVos on Oct. 22, demanding loan forgiveness and other measures that DeVos largely agreed to in her Friday announcement. Student Defense, a Washington advocacy group that helped file the suit, celebrated the news as a victory.