RJ Infusino thought he was on the path to a new career as an audio engineer when he enrolled at the Illinois Institute of Art. Instead, after his school lost its accreditation, withheld the loss to its students, and closed, he was bumped from one for-profit school to another, accumulating debt and moving further from his career path.
He became the lead plaintiff in a 2018 class action suit against the Illinois Institute of Art and other schools owned by the Dream Center, just before the changes to the U.S. Department of Education rules would have made a class action suit impossible.
The U.S. Department of Education is reviewing class action waiver rules right now during negotiated rulemaking, or NegReg. Read Infusino’s story to see how reinstating class action lawsuits could help students be made whole after colleges cheat them.
What Is NegReg? And Why Does It Matter?
On Oct. 4, the U.S. Department of Education began negotiated rulemaking, where it makes regulations to clarify any ambiguities in higher education lawmaking. Within the policy community, it is also called “NegReg.”
The 2016 negotiated rulemaking sessions established several rules that barred some schools from getting class-action waivers (to keep groups of students from suing) and from having pre-dispute arbitration agreements when students sue. It also made it easier for students to get debt relief (borrower defense to repayment) when they are cheated by unscrupulous schools.
During the 2018 rulemaking sessions, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reversed many of the rules made in 2016, to the benefit of predatory colleges and to the detriment of student borrowers.
The current negotiated rulemaking sessions, now under Secretary Miguel Cardona, have the potential to restore and improve upon the 2016 rules, increasing accountability for colleges and aiding students in debt relief.
School never came easy for RJ Infusino. But one subject always ignited his passion: media production. As a kid, Infusino would make short movies with his friends. In high school, he fell in love with audio engineering and dreamed of a career making video games.
In his senior year, Infusino applied to the Illinois Institute of Art’s Schaumburg campus, a nearby for-profit school. During a campus tour, a recruiter emphasized the school’s industry connections, promising a meaningful internship that would jumpstart his career. Convinced that the school would set him on a path to success, Infusino decided to enroll.
As soon as Infusino was on campus, though, the school’s promises started to unravel. Classes he’d been told about during the campus tour, including a course on sound design for video games, simply didn’t exist. And the one that did fell far short of expectations. “I had to do a lot of self-teaching,” Infusino recalls. When it came time for his industry internship, he was placed in a local insurance company’s sales office.
Infusino thought about leaving the school, but, he figured, he had already invested in his education. He decided to put his head down and focus on his studies. He started helping new students understand audio software and partnered with classmates on out-of-school projects.
But things kept getting worse. By the end of 2017, many of Infusino’s instructors and administrators had left the school. Replacement instructors were assigned classes with no guidance about what they were supposed to teach.
In the summer of 2018, Infusino was in between school terms when he checked his email and read a message from the school saying it had lost its accreditation. “That was one of the worst moments of my life,” Infusino recalled. “It felt like the entire world was coming down around me, like everything I had worked so hard for was falling apart.”
When Infusino and his fellow classmates returned to campus after break, the campus was in disarray. School officials kept telling students not to worry and that everything would be sorted out. A few weeks later, news broke that the school had actually lost its accreditation six months earlier, but never told its students. All the classes Infusino had taken in 2018 were unaccredited. “It’s hard to put into words how betrayed I felt and still feel to this day,” Infusino told Student Defense.
Infusino was left to choose between two bad options. Because the school was closing, he could apply to have his federal loans discharged. However, that would not repay the tens of thousands of dollars his family had paid out-of-pocket, and it would wipe out all the credits he had earned. Or he could transfer to another college, but his options were deeply limited by the school’s loss of accreditation and the narrow scope of his program.
After careful consideration, and with a promise of a $5,000 tuition grant from the Institute of Art, Infusino decided to transfer to the for-profit Full Sail University, even though it would set his graduation date back by almost a year. Shortly after he enrolled at Full Sail, the Illinois Institute of Art reneged on the promised grant.
Despite the setbacks, Infusino graduated from Full Sail in March 2020, and he remains hopeful he can still follow his dream of designing sound for video games. But the Illinois Institute of Art’s deceptions have exacted a steep price. Infusino borrowed more than $20,000 during his time at the school, and he is starting his career nearly a year later than he intended.
Student Defense’s Involvement:
Infusino is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit Infusino v. DeVos, a class action that challenged the Department of Education’s illegal support of the Illinois Institute of Art and other schools owned by the Dream Center. The schools became ineligible for federal financial aid funds after they lost their accreditation, but the Department of Education allowed students to incur debt for unaccredited credits and degrees. In November 2019, the Department announced it would cancel millions of dollars in debt incurred by Student Defense clients and class members, including Infusino. The $11 million cancelled and refunded represented all loans taken out after the schools lost accreditation in January 2018.
In May 2019, Infusino testified in an oversight hearing in the House of Representatives, describing how he was affected by his school’s lies and the Department of Education’s inaction.