The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Student loan borrowers perplexed by Biden administration’s continued defense of Trump-era lawsuits

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks at the White House in March. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Amanda Kulka expected her six-year fight for student loan cancellation would be over by now.

Powerful allies, including a state attorney general and a federal judge, agreed that she and other students in Massachusetts had been defrauded by the defunct for-profit chain Corinthian Colleges. The courts even granted all 7,200 of them a full discharge of their debt in June, rebuking former education secretary Betsy DeVos’s attempt to block their request for relief.

The Trump administration appealed the decision, bringing the order to a standstill. But with the arrival of a new administration, one with a keen interest in consumer rights, Kulka believed the case would soon be over. She was wrong.

“When Biden was elected, I was like 'Yes, here is someone who has heard about our fight, who heard about our struggles. He’ll take care of this,” said Kulka, 33, who owes $10,000 in federal student loans for a certificate in medical administration. “But we’re still here. I want to be optimistic, but I’ve been waiting for so long.”

The Biden administration continues to defend lawsuits against the Education Department over Trump-era policies on student loans and career training regulation.

Biden’s Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has begun dismantling his predecessor’s policies. The department this week lifted a ban on colleges providing emergency grants to undocumented and international students. It has also extended student debt relief to disabled borrowers and some defrauded students.

But advocacy groups are baffled as Justice Department attorneys representing the federal agency hold the line on legal positions that are out of step with Biden’s agenda.

Justice has reversed the government’s position in several high-profile cases involving the Affordable Care Act, voting rights and sentencing since Biden took office. Federal attorneys have even dropped a Trump-era lawsuit accusing Yale University of discriminating against Asian and White applicants.

Education Justice Dept. drops suit accusing Yale of bias against Asian and White applicants

Yet when comes to cases involving federal student aid, consumer attorneys say the Biden administration is moving at a glacial pace.

“I’m shocked that more than 100 days in we’re still in an active appeal on something that is so opposed to what the Biden administration claims it’s about,” said Toby Merrill, director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending, a group representing borrowers in multiple Trump-era cases, including the class-action lawsuit in which Kulka is involved.

She added: “We won the case so all they have to do is follow the law. It’s incredibly frustrating to our clients who have been waiting for so long for someone to do the right thing.”

Education Department spokeswoman Kelly Leon said the agency’s “new leadership is working actively to address concerns relating to the student financial aid policies of the prior administration." With the ongoing lawsuits filed during Trump’s term, she said the department “continues to assess the issues ... to determine whether they can be resolved without further litigation.”

Advocates question how much more time the new leadership needs before people like Kulka can move on with their lives.

Enrolling in the Everest Institute, one of three schools run by Corinthian, was supposed to create a career path for Kulka. She had hoped to go to college, but her son took priority after she became pregnant at age 18. Jobs braiding hair and working retail were a dead end.

Television ads for Everest, promising a short path to lucrative jobs, piqued her interest. And the campus recruiters promising to find her a job in the field won Kulka over. But after barely using any of the assigned course material, she began questioning the quality of the education.

“We opened maybe three books out of the 12 that were assigned,” Kulka said. “I felt like I was on my own and had to teach myself. They were supposed to prepare us to take a licensing exam and didn’t.”

After Kulka graduated in 2010, what she thought would be hands-on career services from Everest amounted to a few emails of job listings from Craigslist. They were the same listings she found on her own and not one resulted in a job. Back to braiding hair. Back to working retail. And now she had debt.

“When I signed up at Everest, it was all ‘We’re going to find your strengths and find the right job for you,'” said Kulka, who eventually found work at an insurance company through a temp agency. “In reality, all we got was an email blast for listings with incorrect information.”

Kulka was not the only Everest student who was sold a bill of goods. An investigation by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office found the school had misrepresented its programs and job placement rates since at least 2009.

The state’s top prosecutor sued Corinthian in 2014 for allegedly using deceptive marketing to lure students into taking out loans they had no hope of paying back. Similar lawsuits emerged across the country, including one led by then-California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris.

It may get easier for some Corinthian students to get debt relief

The 2015 closure of Corinthian ushered in a deluge of debt relief claims at the Education Department, including one submitted on behalf of Everest students by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. Her group claim contained more than 2,700 pages of supporting evidence but languished at the department for years, like tens of thousands of other applications.

While the Obama administration was slow to act on the applications, the Trump administration shut down the processing of claims for months. Students are entitled to a discharge of their federal education loans if their colleges defraud them, but DeVos called the program, known as borrower defense to repayment, a “free money” giveaway.

DeVos changed the methodology for calculating relief, scrapped a 2016 update of the statute, rewrote the rules in a way that limits forgiveness and issued blanket denials. All of those actions are at the heart of ongoing lawsuits.

Dropping some cases could be a matter of timing, as the administration prepares new rules on policies underpinning a few lawsuits.

Cardona scraps DeVos policy, will fully cancel debt of many students defrauded by colleges

In March, the Biden administration said it will overhaul DeVos’s rewrite of the borrower defense rules, the source of lawsuits brought by state attorneys general. Biden also said on the campaign trail he would restore the gainful employment regulation, which penalizes career-training programs for producing too many graduates with more debt than they can repay.

Restoring those Obama-era policies would require negotiated rulemaking at the Education Department, a process that could take months, if not longer. That could hinder movement in related cases.

But consumer groups argue that settling some cases could easily undo Trump-era policy, specifically the repeal of the gainful employment rule. The American Federation of Teachers, which sued the department for rescinding the rule, urged Cardona in April to stop defending the lawsuit.

A group of activists also raised concerns to Cardona in April about the continued defense of the gainful litigation and other cases spawned from DeVos policies. The 24 organizations, led by Demand Progress, also criticized the Biden administration for backing the former secretary’s fight to avoid testifying about her role in slow-walking and denying scores of debt relief claims.

Justice Department attorneys argued in a joint filing with DeVos’s personal attorney that her deposition would be “extraordinary, unnecessary and unsupported.”

Activists called the motion “unconscionable” and urged the Education Department to “abandon this effort to protect DeVos from accountability.” The groups said the department “must stop doubling-down on defending the Trump administration’s positions in every case involving student lending issues.”

The federal agency has asked the courts for more time to review and respond to several complaints, but it’s unclear whether that will lead to a timely resolution.

“It may reflect that there is an internal process at the Department of Education underway to re-evaluate the agency’s position,” said Christopher Peterson, a law professor at the University of Utah. “But the department needs to move quickly to solve problems that are facing the public and we’re not seeing that yet in a number of critical cases.”

Since taking office, the Biden administration has addressed some of DeVos’ controversial debt relief policies. Cardona scrapped a plan to give partial debt relief to defrauded borrowers whose claims have been approved and instead provide them a full discharge.

But the new policy is limited and does not apply to Kulka.

“Right now, I’m in a place where I can’t do anything without this debt eating away at me,” Kulka said. “It may seem small, but it’s been on my record for so long that trying to get a loan is a horrible experience. I take two steps forward with this case and get set 10 steps back.”