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Fighting back against for-profit universities

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. DOUG MILLS / NEW YORK TIMES FILE PHOTO

When Stephano Del Rose enrolled in the New England Institute of Art in Brookline, he had bold dreams of a future in Web design and filmmaking. Lured by promises of cutting-edge digital equipment, internships, and industry connections, Del Rose, now 25, quickly signed on. But his enrollment contract instead led to a world of broken promises, heavy debt, and limited legal options. “This turned out to be a lie,” said the Canton man, who graduated from NEIA in 2014. “The equipment was outdated, the career services office wasn’t helpful, and I ended up working at Walgreens, just like I did before graduation.” He owes more than $40,000 in federal loans.

Del Rose and another Massachusetts student, Meaghan Bauer, are suing NEIA and its parent company, Educational Management Corporation, charging that they made deceptive claims about the quality of instruction and job opportunities. NEIA and the parent company are fighting back, even though the Brookline campus is no longer accepting new students and is reportedly making plans to close. And the school won’t even consider unlocking the rigid legal shackles tucked away in its enrollment contracts: a mandatory arbitration agreement and class-action waiver commonly used to prevent students from going to court.


If that weren’t enough, Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, made things elementally harder last month when she announced delays in implementing Obama administration protections for student borrowers. Devos is “giving a pass to predatory schools that wield influence with this administration,” says Julie Murray, a lawyer for the nonprofit Public Citizen group who is representing Del Rose and Bauer. Yesterday, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey led a coalition of 18 other attorneys general in filing a suit charging that the delays are unlawful.

The lines could not be clearer: Healey slammed DeVos for siding with “for-profit school executives against students and families drowning in debt.” In fact, many for-profit schools are merely a pallid simulacrum of higher education, vocational schools with sham marketing campaigns that make them look like elite Little Ivies. Most target low-income students, with up to 90 percent of revenue coming from federal financial aid. One recent study found that, on average, students pursuing bachelor’s and associate’s degrees at such colleges actually saw their earnings drop.


DeVos contends the process was muddled, and says she wants to develop new guidelines. Fine, but her hiring of for-profit industry insiders raises questions about whose interests the Department of Education will ultimately protect. The lawsuits have merit, and might help Del Rose, Bauer, and hundreds of thousands of other students get some debt relief and gain a better foothold on the future.