Graduates of closed Kansas college suing Betsy DeVos for millions in loan debt relief

Equila Moody was strolling through a mall in 2012 when she saw the storefront advertising Wright Career College, promising a higher education and a career earning a good wage.

Moody saw her chance.

“I wanted to be an accountant or to own my own business,” Moody said. “They told me I could get help to pay for school because I was low income. They said they would help me get the money, and I would be able to pay it back.”

Moody would later find out Wright admissions workers had duped her into racking up $40,000 in student loans, promising she could easily pay it all back with her new job. Worse, she said, her associate’s degree in business administration from Wright was worthless, giving her zero chance of landing a job. On top of that, she could find no other college that would accept the credits she’d worked two years for at Wright. To get a legitimate degree, this unemployed mother of two young children said she would have to start her college education all over again.

Five years after graduating from Wright in Wichita and more than three years after the Overland Park-based career college declared bankruptcy and closed its two campuses in Kansas, as well as in Omaha, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Moody is still haunted by the decision she made that day to trust the school’s admission counselors. She’s $40,000 in debt. Wages from her low-paying factory job are being garnished. Her financial trap cripples any steps she attempts to take to improve her lot in life.

“It makes me angry, frustrated and upset,” she said. “They were getting that money and not really giving me anything. No degree, no diploma and no knowledge.”

Thousands of former students like Moody across the country are fighting back in the form of lawsuits. The latest:

Last week a suit on behalf of more than 158,000 former students was filed against U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her department for blocking a program that provided loan relief for victims of fraudulent schools. The suit lists several colleges like Wright that have since closed.

The “borrower defense to repayment” program, created under the Obama administration, had canceled students’ loan debts if a college misled them or broke state laws. Yet under DeVos, June 2018 was the last time any claims were processed.

Moody hopes that by joining the lawsuit she might eventually find relief from her stifling debt. A notable number, 3,137, of students with claims are from Missouri as of January; 964 from Kansas.

They say they were lured and deceived by predatory schools that, with the promise of a quality education and great job prospects, coerced them into borrowing thousands of federal dollars that the college knew the students could never afford to pay back.

“Cheating and lying to students while leaving them with unaffordable debt and no path to the middle class cannot continue,’’ said James Kvaal, president of the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit that is putting a spotlight on how student debt harms families and society.

Most of these schools were for-profit, including ITT Technical Institute, Corinthian Colleges, DeVry University, Vatterott and the Art Institutes, which in recent years have closed, leaving students burdened with thousands of dollars in debt, damaged credit and depleted access to further student aid. Wright was one of the few nonprofit colleges linked with schools described as predatory.

“There were huge amounts of taxpayer dollars going to waste through these schools,” said Beth Stein, vice president of the college access institute. “It is waste, fraud and abuse. Taxpayers’ money was transferred to owners of these schools, and along the way, owners got wealthy and they would leave the students behind.”

The Department of Education “has more or less refused to process any borrower defense claims,” said Stein. “What they are trying to do, we think, is develop a pathway to grant only partial forgiveness instead of full forgiveness on student loan debt.”

She and other advocates are not sure students will prevail against the DeVos administration. “But bringing new pressure on the department to take action is important,” Stein said.

DeVos also announced last week that her department would repeal another Obama-era restriction requiring for-profit colleges to disclose the debt load of graduates and prove that a certain percentage of graduates obtained gainful employment. If they couldn’t meet the standard, they could no longer have access to federal financial aid.

Instead of the regulation, DeVos said, the department will provide a scorecard on colleges’ records, with no threat of lost federal funding.

The easing of restrictions comes as U.S. student loan debt has climbed to $1.6 trillion.

Earlier this week, U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a Kansas Democrat, stopped in at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park — her alma mater — to talk about creative ways to help students manage hefty debt.

“It is really about the future of our economy,” Davids said. She supports legislation that would forgive loans for students going into public service and, down the road, “incentivizing” small businesses to help employees pay down debt.

For now, more students are joining lawsuits to recoup losses.

Last month two Kansas City-area women, former students of National American University, sued the for-profit school, claiming they were tricked into borrowing thousands of dollars in student loans with false promises about the quality of the education and job prospects they would have when they graduated.

Among the alleged victims included in the recent lawsuit against DeVos and the Education Department are 181 former Wright students, who in 2014 were also parties in a suit filed in Jackson County Circuit Court against the school. That lawsuit claimed students were defrauded “through a systematic, deceptive marketing scheme.”

The lawsuit, led by attorneys at the Independence firm Humphrey, Farrington and McClain, was settled in 2017, bringing in $3 million divided among 264 former Wright students.

Moody was not one of them but hopes to join the most recent suit. Attorneys for the law firm said they know that hundreds more students were harmed by the school’s practices but were not part of the earlier lawsuit.

Antoinette Flores of the Center for American Progress said the settlement the Wright students won provides “clear evidence” for the students to prove they were defrauded and they are “perfect candidates for relief under borrowers defense.”

Neil Sader, an attorney who handled Wright’s bankruptcy case, which ended in March, says he sympathizes with the students, to an extent.

“There’s no more money … no more school,” Sader said. “And that’s a shame. In a lot of cases there is no other opportunity for these students to go to any other type of school. And many of them take the opportunity and move life forward. In reality it changed a lot of people’s lives for the better. But there were lots of people who felt the opposite too. I think many of those people didn’t put in the effort that other people did, and then they felt aggrieved.”

Ron Holt, a Kansas City attorney, was a member of Wright’s board at the time it closed. “I disagree categorically,” he said, with any accusations that Wright misled or deceived students. “Wright had scores and scores who completed programs and were placed in various fields. That is a gratuitous allegation.”

He said Wright had no control over other schools not accepting credits from a small, nationally accredited institution. He said Wright met all accreditation criteria, including program completion and career placements, set by the Accrediting Counsel for Independent Colleges and Schools. Wright’s closure had little to do with the lawsuit against it at the time, Holt said. It closed, he said, when enrollment declined and it “ran out of money and ran out of time.”

But Moody says when she showed potential employers her credentials from Wright, she was told they were useless. Still Moody was not ready to quit. She enrolled at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas.

“I flunked out,” she said. By the end of the first semester, “I had failed everything. I didn’t understand how that was possible because I had just taken all these same classes and passed them at Wright.”

Moody reckons now that, “I really wasn’t passing at Wright. They were just passing me through to get the money. They kept coming to me after every semester telling me I had to take out more (loan) money to pay for something or other to finish school.”

Though she had hopes of becoming an accountant, she can only find work on a factory line making less than $25,000 a year to care for herself and her two children.

Victor Washington, another Wright graduate, has a similar tale of woe. Washington said he was living in Kansas City, Kansas, when he started taking classes at Wright. “I grew up in a tough neighborhood,” said the father of three. I had a lot of friends who were getting murdered. I wanted to get out of the hood.”

Washington said when he walked into the admissions office at Wright’s Overland Park campus, “I didn’t have a dime in my pocket. I told them I didn’t have a high school diploma or a GED, and they said that was OK.” This was before 2012, back when federal educators allowed career colleges to enroll high school dropouts with no GED.

He says he graduated at the top of his class. “When I tried to find work, I was told Wright business school wasn’t accredited.” He tried a different school, but the credits could not transfer. “Wright told me they would help us find work. They told us we would get jobs paying $20 or $25 an hour. But when we graduated it was every man for himself.”

Washington now lives in Seattle, where he went looking for work. He owes $20,000 in student loan debt and is working in a warehouse, “doing hard labor unloading trucks” for little money. His wages are being garnished.

“I wish I would have chosen a different school,” he said. “I wasted part of my life even though I was just trying to make my life better. I feel like I was deceived.”

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