Student Loan Truth: The Real Heroes of NegReg

October 18, 2021

Between October 4 to October 8, the Department of Education held their second Negotiation Rulemaking, or NegReg, session of the year. NegReg is a process in which stakeholders—including students, institutional representatives, and state and nonprofit enforcement agencies—collaborate with the Department on how to improve policies that impact students. This year, the broken borrower defense process is one of the top areas of discussion.

One would think that the Department would want to include a representative for those who experienced this process firsthand in the discussion. And there are plenty to choose from. More than 300,000 borrowers have filed borrower defense claims over the last 6 years, seeking their right to loan cancellation after they were cheated by their schools. The vast majority of these claims have been ignored, lost in a broken, arbitrary, and often malicious administrative process. We represent these borrowers in our lawsuit Sweet v Cardona (formerly Sweet v DeVos).

Theresa Sweet, the named plaintiff in that lawsuit, was nominated to the rulemaking committee with the support of more than 1,500 of her peers – all fellow for-profit college borrowers – who wanted her to represent their experience and their interests. Yet the Department refused to include Theresa in the committee. When confronted, they cited concerns about her role in ongoing litigation. But when two additional student borrowers stepped up to participate, they too were denied—despite being full prepared, available, and having the support of a majority of the negotiators.

For-profit college borrowers did not allow the conversation proceeded without their perspectives. Instead, they banded together to fight back and be heard. Left only with the option to apply for a 3-minute speaking slot during the public comments period at the close of each day’s discussion, these student borrowers lined up to forcefully make their views and experiences known to the committee.

Their testimonies serve as a powerful reminder of what is at stake in this process. Here are just a few excerpts of what borrowers told the committee.

 

Evenlyn Cervantes called out the Department for their lack of for-profit borrower representation.

“Your votes not to include students impacted by borrower defense are incredibly reflective of your interests. I am looking at those of you previously involved with for-profit education organizations. You should not have a seat at this table. For-profit colleges have disproportionately affected communities of color. Looking at you now, I know that this committee is not reflective of that either. How can you say that you are working to make effective changes when the basic properties of this committee do not reflect those of the people you are serving?” (Watch Evelyn’s full remarks here.)

 

Theresa Sweet reminded the committee of the injustices she’s seen as and how broken the borrower defense process remains.

“Like the more than 150,000 class members of Sweet V Cardona, I have been waiting for 5 years for a lawful decision on the merits of my claim. The judge in my case has described the situation as “disturbingly Kafkaesque” and has said that students may have already suffered irreparable harm in this broken process. His words are not hyperbole.

Yet here we are today, hundreds of thousands of borrower defense applicants have been shut out of the rulemaking process in favor of shark suited, for-profit lackeys and bankers. Foxes guarding the henhouse.” (watch Theresa’s full remarks here.)

 

Ashley Pizzuti emphasized the impact that her experience with predatory for-profit colleges has had on her life.

“It’s pretty telling when student loan profiteers still control the narrative. I’m utterly disappointed our voice is being shut out once again.

In the last decade I have been researching how my husband and I ended up with HALF A MILLION DOLLARS in student loan debt after graduating from Brooks in 2005. Easy, we were lied to about job prospects and placement, graduation rates, accreditation, and transfer of credits. Pair that with a recession and capitalized interest and there you go.

In 2015, I started to reach out to others from school. We were all suffering the same fate.” (Read more about Ashley here.)

 

Pam Hewitt shared the impact that loans for for-profit colleges have on parents, speaking from her own experience with Parent PLUS loans after her son was cheated by Full Sail college.

“It isn’t widely known how seriously student debt impacts parents. My husband and I are on fixed incomes. We attempted to refinance our house, but we were denied due to the student loan debt. We were also told that no banks would help us as the monthly payment on the student loan wipes out my income, leaving just my husband’s income for all our costs of living, including the mortgage.

You start sinking and by the time you fully understand the magnitude – well – there is no way to stop. What do you do and who do you turn to?  We are in just as much trouble with this Parent Plus loan as the kids are – perhaps worse, as our income has no chance of increasing.  I will never see the end to this loan, it will impact me for the rest of my life. This is devastating, a worst-case scenario is that we could end up unable to put a roof over our heads. Where do we get help from?”  (Read more about Pam and Parent PLUS loans here.)

 

Student borrowers lined up during the public comment period to make their voices heard, telling the committee about the unique ways in which their shared experiences as for-profit borrowers have impacted their lives. Borrowers are owed more than just three minutes to advocate for their rights and their futures.

Borrower defense was meant to be a fail-safe for those who did nothing more than try to better their lives through higher education. Instead, they’re left waiting for years for a life-changing decision and are left out of the conversation when leaders try to “improve” the process.

Negotiated Rulemaking continues for its second of three session next month. We’ll see if the Department finally chooses to include the voices of for-profit borrowers in their decision-making.