Education Secretary Betsey DeVos spoke about changing career and education needs on Sept. 18. "Washington should not be dictating when and how students can learn," she said. (The Washington Post)

When attorneys at Harvard Law School’s Project on Predatory Student Lending learned Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was speaking at the Ivy League university Thursday evening, they saw an opportunity to connect her with the for-profit college students they serve.

Many of their clients had amassed tens of thousands of dollars in debt attending Corinthian Colleges or ITT Technical Institutes, schools leveled by rampant charges of fraud. Many face the uncertainty of whether the Education Department, which shut off federal aid to their schools for fraud, will discharge their loans for the very behavior that led the agency to pull funding. The attorneys extended the secretary an invitation last week to meet these former students, but she declined.

“The people who have been affected by the secretary’s policies deserve to have their voices heard,” said Toby Merrill, director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending. “I’m disappointed that she refused to meet with our clients, but not completely surprised given how frequently the department has sided with industry over students.”

Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill said DeVos simply could not fit the meeting into her schedule.

“Secretary DeVos is participating in bilateral meetings at the State Department today, and she will arrive in Massachusetts just prior to this evening’s forum and therefore she was unable to accommodate requests for additional meetings,” she said.

The secretary’s rejection of the invitation arrives days after she took aim at the borrower defense to repayment rule during a speech at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference. The decades-old law wipes away the debt of students whose colleges used illegal and deceptive tactics to get them to borrow money for college. The previous administration overhauled the law to streamline the claims process and shift more of the cost onto colleges, but DeVos suspended the changes and said she would convene a committee to reconsider the matter.

At the conference, DeVos criticized the new system, saying “all one had to do was raise his or her hands to be entitled to so-called free money.” Her comments riled consumer advocates and liberal lawmakers who said DeVos was out of touch with the plight of the people affected by her policies.

“It’s telling that Secretary DeVos is once again quick to blame students who were victims of fraud, including many of our nation’s veterans, rather than the predatory for-profit colleges who defrauded them,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “Secretary DeVos needs to … start providing the legally-required relief to the students who have been cheated out of their education and savings.”

Not a single application for debt relief under the borrower defense law has been approved during the Trump administration, leaving more than 65,000 people in limbo. The vast majority of those borrowers submitted claims during the Obama administration, but the Education Department has received nearly 15,000 new applications this year. The agency has given no indication of when it will resume the process.

Meanwhile, state attorneys general are suing DeVos to implement the changes to the borrower defense rule, and former for-profit college students are suing the department to expedite their claims.

One of those cases involves a client of the Harvard law clinic, Sarah Dieffenbacher, who borrowed $50,000 in federal student loans to attend Corinthian’s Everest College from 2007 to 2012. She submitted a claim to have her loans discharged in March 2015 and has had her wages garnished while waiting for a reply. A federal judge ordered the Education Department in June to rule on her application, but the agency continues to stall.

Merrill said she would still welcome any opportunity to have DeVos meet with her clients, who are eager to share their stories with the secretary.