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Shattered: Faces of the For-Profit College Crisis

'It’s Like You Want to Wake Up From a Bad Nightmare'

The U.S. Department of Education can make rules to protect students from predatory colleges — right now.

Story subject Jamie Murillo standing in middle of residential street with houses on either side of him.
Jaime Murillo took out over $50,000 in student loans for a degree that would lead to nowhere. (Alexander Shebanow)

To Jaime Murillo, the criminal justice program at Chicago’s Westwood College looked like a path to a career in law enforcement. However, when he found out that the Chicago Police Department didn’t accept Westwood’s credits because the school was unaccredited, he was left with a useless degree and over $50,000 in student loans.

Borrower defense rules help students like Murillo get debt relief from predatory colleges that mislead students about job opportunities and accreditation. The U.S. Department of Education strengthened those rules in 2016. However, in 2018, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rolled back those rules — to the benefit of predatory colleges and to the detriment of student borrowers.

Now, the U.S. Department of Education is again conducting negotiated rulemaking, or NegReg, to change the rules that govern how students can get debt relief when they are misled by predatory schools.

Read Murillo’s story to see how predatory colleges mislead students. Negotiated rulemaking has the potential to protect them.

This portrait is one in a series produced by Student Defense and filmmaker/photographer Alexander Shebanow and is featured in the documentary Fail State.

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.

Jaime Murillo spent most of his childhood in a “rough community” in the Chicago suburbs. As a kid, he dreamed of becoming a lawyer or police officer to tackle the crime in his neighborhood.

Out of high school Murillo enrolled in two nearby colleges, including his local community college, but dropped out after just a few classes. In 2005, Murillo decided it was time to get back on track with his dream. By then, Jamie was in his late 20s, married, and ready to build a better life for himself and his wife. When a cousin mentioned Westwood College, a for-profit school in downtown Chicago, Jamie remembered seeing their TV ads. Full of happy, successful graduates in police uniforms, the commercials “painted a perfect picture,” Murillo recalled. “It looked legit.”

After some online research, Murillo scheduled a campus tour. A recruiter showed him around, talking up the classes that would prepare him for a career in law enforcement. When Murillo asked about the program’s cost, the recruiter downplayed it. Murillo wouldn’t have to worry about paying back student loans, the recruiter said, because the program would land him a job in the Chicago Police Department. And there were “all sorts of school scholarships.” Cost questions almost always came back to the scholarships, Murillo remembers. It wasn’t later that Murillo would learn those scholarships were not issued by the school itself, and that he wasn’t even eligible for many of them.

Murillo enrolled at Westwood, excited to be back on track to the career he always wanted. He liked his classes — especially the fact that some of his criminal justice classes were taught by former law enforcement officials.

But after a few semesters at Westwood, Murillo began hearing rumors from other students that the Chicago Police Department (CPD) wasn’t accepting Westwood’s credits. Nervous, Murillo started asking around. But his professors didn’t know much, and the administration proved even less helpful, refusing to answer if the credits would be recognized by CPD. When tensions hit a fever pitch, Murillo and a group of students went directly to the dean’s office, but the dean refused to answer the question and shut the door on them.

Not getting answers from Westwood, Murillo reached out to a distant friend in the Chicago Police Department and asked whether a Westwood degree was recognized by CPD. Murillo’s friend came back and told him that the credits and degree were not recognized because Westwood lacked proper accreditation. His degree would be worthless. Murillo had taken out over $50,000 in student loans for a degree that would lead to nowhere.

Today, Murillo is still paying down student loans for his time at Westwood College and is not working as a police officer.

Westwood College closed in 2016 after multiple state and federal investigations found Westwood had misled students about job opportunities, employed deceptive and misleading advertising and enrollment practices, and misled students on their ability to transfer Westwood credits to other colleges and universities.

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