Robert Armour sued the Education Department on Friday for denying his application for loan forgiveness provided to students whose colleges close. (Alex Shebanow)

Toward the end of the 2018 spring semester, Robert Armour learned that his colon cancer had metastasized to his liver and advanced to stage four. The doctoral student at Argosy University’s Schaumburg campus in Illinois took a leave of absence from his psychology program to undergo treatment.

While he was on leave, his campus became among the first wave of Argosy campuses to cease operation. And when it shuttered, Armour pursued his legal right to have $100,000 in federal student loans he borrowed for his degree canceled. The Education Department denied the request, claiming he didn’t meet the criteria.

That decision left Armour struggling to pay more than $1,000 a month on his loans while battling cancer.

On Friday, Armour, 54, sued the department and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in an effort to reverse the denial of his application for a closed-school discharge, a form of loan forgiveness provided to college students whose schools shut down.

“He was denied due process … and wasn’t provided sufficient reason to understand the basis of the decision,” said Alex Elson, an attorney at the National Student Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit representing Armour.

The Education Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Students are eligible for the discharge if they were enrolled when a school closed, were on an approved leave of absence or if they had withdrawn within four months of the closure. Transferring elsewhere to complete their degree makes students ineligible.

Armour considered continuing his studies at first, but the nearest schools offering his program were in Chicago — three hours away from where he lived. His old two-hour commute to the Schaumburg campus was long enough. Giving up nearly six years’ worth of coursework was difficult, but at that point it made the most sense, he said.

“It was devastating,” Armour said. “I had spent a large portion of my time going to school. But without graduating and being able to make the extra money, it felt like there was no other option but to seek a discharge.”

He tried unsuccessfully for months to obtain records of his leave of absence from Argosy. It turned out the for-profit chain was in the midst of an upheaval.

The Education Department cut off federal student loan and grant money to Argosy in February after learning that the school used more than $13 million owed to students to cover payroll and other expenses.

Without the critical source of revenue from federal student aid, Argosy’s owner, Dream Center Education Holdings, had little chance of keeping the school open. Within a week of the Education Department’s decision to cut off money, Argosy’s remaining chain of 22 career schools stretching from Virginia to California closed. Dream Center Education Holdings has since dissolved.

Near the end of March, Armour gathered his medical records and every email correspondence with Argosy Schaumburg about his leave and submitted that material with his application for loan forgiveness. He received a letter from the Education Department weeks later stating that he appeared to meet the criteria and that his request was under final review. But the agency ultimately denied his application.

“I was shocked,” Armour said. “The department told me, ‘Everything looks good and we’re going to send it up the chain,’ and then they wrote back with no real explanation other than to say, ‘You’re denied.’ ”

Armour filed a freedom of information request for all documents and any correspondence the Education Department relied upon to reach its decision. The records he received this month showed the agency determined he was on leave when the Schaumburg campus closed. Those records appear to contradict what the department asserted in its letter denying Armour debt relief, when it said he had withdrawn from the school more than four months before closing — outside the period that would allow loan forgiveness. There were also no documents indicating that the Education Department reached out to Argosy or Dream Center to verify Armour’s leave.

“There is no real appeal process, other than the department saying you can send more information for them to consider. But I sent everything I had, so that left me with no options,” Armour said.

This is not the first time the Education Department’s closed-school discharge process has come under fire.

During a House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee hearing in June, Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.) questioned an Education Department staff member about the agency having incorrect closure dates for multiple Dream Center locations. Lee said the flawed information was used to deny loan forgiveness for two former students of the Art Institute of Phoenix.

“It’s just hard to overstate the personal risk and stakes here,” Lee said during the hearing. “Being told that they don’t qualify for full discharge, when in fact they do, is the difference between a lifetime of financial ruin or a lifetime of freedom.”

In December 2017, the office of North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein wrote DeVos urging her to review the denials of students who were on approved leaves of absence when Charlotte School of Law closed. Stein said a breakdown in communication between the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit that tracks enrollment, and the department’s loan database resulted in a reporting error. The law school failed to report the correct enrollment information to the Clearinghouse.

Armour said he knows there is no way to recover the time and effort spent pursuing his doctorate, but having his loans canceled would at least eliminate a financial burden. Every dime of student debt he has is a result of seeking that one degree.

Armour avoided taking out federal loans to obtain his other degrees in criminal justice and psychology by working full time as a corrections officer while attending college at night. He had planned to use the doctorate to become a staff psychologist for the Illinois Department of Corrections.

“Had I had an opportunity to graduate, the upside is you make pretty good money as a doctor and the repayment would not be impossible,” Armour said. “But with the school closing, it basically saddled me with $100,000 of debt that I will never be able to pay off in my lifetime.”