When Tiffany Fair enrolled at Walden University, a for-profit online school, she hoped that earning a doctorate degree in business administration (DBA) would give her an edge to advance in her career in the U.S. Army. But over four-and-a-half years, Walden would upend Fair’s life as she knew it. She racked up tens of thousands of dollars of unplanned debt as she fought Walden’s inexplicable delays in the completion of her degree, and her relationship with family suffered.
Fair, who is biracial, later learned that her experience, which began in 2016, was not too unusual at Walden. Many students had had issues with arbitrary rule-changing that delayed degrees and heaped on fees. However, she had more in common with her fellow classmates than their enrollment at a predatory online school. Her classmates were disproportionately Black women.
As Fair came to learn, Walden had a history of pursuing Black and female students to enroll in its doctorate programs, then forcing them to pay more money to complete their degrees.
Number of complaints submitted to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education between 2008 and 2016
Between 2008 and 2016, Walden students made more than 1,000 complaints to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, which oversees the higher education institutions operating out of the state, where Walden is located. Eventually, the issue became so dire that students approached the legal nonprofit National Student Defense Legal Aid Network (Student Defense) with their grievances.
In a class action lawsuit filed earlier this year by Student Defense and the law firm Relman Colfax, Fair and two other former students alleged that Walden had violated their civil rights by targeting Black and female students and then ensnaring them in programs that ultimately cost former students over $28 million in overpaid tuition.
Policy experts note that the practice, known as reverse redlining, has become a glaring problem in higher education, particularly with for-profit institutions.
Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act states that it’s illegal for recipients of federal financial assistance, such as universities receiving federal student loan dollars, to exclude, deny, or discriminate against a person “on the ground of race, color, or national origin.” Instead of discriminatory exclusion, reverse redlining targets people for enrollment on the basis of their race or gender, which is still against the law.
Lawyers representing Walden students reviewed the school’s advertising spending databases and marketing materials and determined that it was intentionally trying to recruit Black and female students. In 2020, Walden focused 90% of its local advertising budget to places with higher than median percentages of Black residents. In 2015, that figure was 99.8%, according to the lawsuit. As a result, roughly 41% of Walden’s doctoral students were Black, more than seven times the national average. “As it stands, when Walden markets the DBA, it is marketing a predatory product, and when it intentionally markets the DBA to Black prospective students, it engages in impermissible reverse redlining,” reads the complaint.
Additionally, Walden uses its marketing materials to appeal to prospective female students, according to the lawsuit. More than three-quarters of its student body identify as female. Nationwide, 6 in 10 higher education students are female. This statistic is prominently displayed on the school’s website, alongside photos of female models and students who are also frequently Black, according to the lawsuit. Even more, the complaint says Walden tried to entice mothers to join the program by creating recruitment videos that highlighted the benefits the school could have for building a family.
Aljanal Carroll, a Black former student who has joined Fair in the lawsuit, said that she first learned about Walden from a pop-up advertisement. Once she enrolled, the doctorate program took twice as long to complete than the enrollment advisor told her. She also ended up with a bill more than $15,000 over what the advisor told she would have to pay for the schooling.
Federal student loan dollars received by Walden in 2019
In 2019, Walden received more than $800 million in federal student loan dollars, according to the lawsuit. Representatives from the school did not reply to a request for comment.
Walden is not the only school that has been accused of reverse redlining. In 2020, The Project on Predatory Student Lending (PPSL), a nonprofit organization that works to hold problematic higher education institutions accountable, filed a lawsuit against Florida Career College (FCC). The lawsuit alleged that the school targeted Black people for enrollment by advertising on radio stations that play hip-hop and R&B music, specific public buses, bus benches, and bus stops, and high schools with high percentages of Black students. The targeting worked. Nearly 85% of students at the school’s Lauderdale Lakes Campus were Black. Though the advertisement promised FCC would provide students with an education to build their careers, median earnings were between $12,800 and $24,500 while students were saddled with years of debt. The case is ongoing.
“They overpromise what they’re going to do, and basically just end up hurting people,” said Eileen Connor, director of PPSL.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has aggressively challenged predatory schemes in higher education. Chavis Jones, associate counsel in the educational opportunities project at the Lawyers’ Committee, said, “We know that education is so important to minority communities in America, because it is viewed as a rung on the ladder of social ascent. This gives a person access to upward mobility. And so with all the promises of what education can be, people are willing to sign up and take out a bunch of loans and to engage in a process of being involved in higher education, sometimes at all costs.”
What would help is for Walden to be held accountable for their actions.Tiffany Fair former student of Walden University
Deepening Racial Disparities
One of the many consequences of reverse redlining is that it deepens already existing racial disparities in student loans across the county. Black doctorate recipients take on an average of $88,000 in debt, while white doctorate recipients have just $31,000.
Research has long borne out the widespread disadvantages minorities and women face in the workplace relative to straight, white men, seen in promotion gaps, salary and wage gaps, underemployment gaps, lack of C‑suite roles, fewer mentorship opportunities, discriminatory treatment in the office, and more.
“Black workers, on average, are not being hired, promoted or paid according to what would signal their level of productivity based on their experience or their education,” said Valerie Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s program on race, ethnicity and the economy. These disadvantages contribute to the reasons why women and minorities seek advanced degrees as support for their career advancement.
Individual lawsuits are a difficult path toward widespread protective reform, and Congress has options to help students. Jones said that lawmakers could introduce legislation that curtails problematic practices at for-profit colleges and universities such as reverse redlining. Connor of PPSL said that the DOE must create clearer rules on the permissibility of racial targeting in higher education.
Holding Schools Accountable
Fair, who was charged $54,000 more than she expected in tuition, now owes approximately $90,000 in student loans. She has called the bill “financially devastating.” Fair said that she hopes her lawsuit will result in new regulations for Walden’s DBA program so that future students don’t have to go through the same struggles.
“On the one hand you feel accomplished that you’ve completed such a major goal that not a lot of people are fortunate enough to do but on the other hand, it’s tainted and it’s a terrible feeling to have to carry that burden, she said. “It can’t be resolved from a lawsuit. “What would help is for Walden to be held accountable for their actions.”