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Shattered: Faces of the For-Profit College Crisis

‘No One Was Representing the Students’

The complex process by which students can apply for and receive federal loan debt relief is a hurdle many students don’t attempt to cross.

Marina Awed sitting at a table in her kitchen.
“Originally I was very trusting of the education system and institutions,” says Marina Awed. “But now I’m very skeptical. I don’t feel like they have the students’ interests in mind.” (Alexander Shebanow)

As Marina Awed was finishing her law degree at Western State College of Law at Argosy University, she found out the school was about to close — and with it her opportunity to get her law degree after nearly three years of hard work at the university. She used her legal expertise to file a motion to force the school to stay open until she could graduate.

The U.S. Department of Education is reviewing its rules and processes on borrower defense to repayment and closed school discharge, two ways that students are able to become whole after being cheated by unscrupulous colleges. During this review, called negotiated rulemaking or NegReg, committee members can make the process to apply for debt relief simpler for students.

Most cheated students don’t have a background in law. Read Awed’s story to see how critical it is for students to be able to easily file for relief through a streamlined process.

This portrait is one in a series produced by the National Student Legal Defense Network and filmmaker and photographer Alexander Shebanow and 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.

Marina Awed knew something was wrong when her student loan stipend didn’t arrive. Entering her final semester of law school, Awed had just begun studying for the California Bar exam. She was relying on that stipend to pay for her basic living expenses and her Bar exam prep class, while a student at Western State College of Law at Argosy University (WSCL)

The daughter of Egyptian immigrants, Awed was the first to graduate college in her family. She attended her local community college and then transferred to the University of California, Davis. It was at UC Davis where she volunteered at a local women’s shelter and was first exposed to children going through the criminal justice system. It was there that she grew passionate about law and wanted to become a children’s legal advocate

She took the LSAT and started applying to law schools around California, looking for one that would offer her a scholarship. In August of 2016, WCSL offered Awed a scholarship to cover her first year of tuition with the potential to extend it for the following two years of study. “It was a no brainer for me,” Awed explained.

For the most part, Awed enjoyed her education at WSCL and found the coursework academically challenging. Toward the end of her first year, the dean at WSCL announced that the school had a new owner, a nonprofit organization called the Dream Center.

By January of 2019, Awed was in her final semester at WSCL. She was excited to graduate in May and had begun preparing for the California Bar exam. Student loans would help cover the additional educational costs.

Two weeks into the semester, though, the money still hadn’t arrived. Awed thought it was strange, but as she talked to classmates, she learned she was not alone. When they approached the school about the missing funds, “The dean told us, ‘It’s not a matter of if, but when,’ so we believed him,” Awed recalled.

Yet, by the end of January, the money still hadn’t arrived, and word spread among the student body that Dream Center had been placed in court-appointed receivership, and its other colleges were shutting down. As rumors spread among students that WSCL was slated to be shut down before the end of the semester, so did panic.

Without clear information from the school, Awed decided to do her own research on Dream Center’s case. She quickly realized that Dream Center creditors were circling the flailing organization while nobody was looking out for students. “Everyone was talking on behalf of students, but no one was actually representing the students,” Awed remembered. She started calling lawyers around Southern California asking for help, but couldn’t find a lawyer to take on their case until she later connected with Student Defense. In the meantime, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

In late February, the Department of Education revoked Argosy’s eligibility for federal student loans and Pell Grants, citing the mismanagement of more than $16 million in financial aid funds owed to students.

Losing access to federal funds is, effectively, a death sentence for almost any college, and Awed knew WSCL could shut down at any moment. She quickly drafted a motion to intervene in the receivership case to represent herself and her fellow third-year law students. She demanded that the school pay students what they were owed and remain open until May so they could graduate. “I attended three of the court sessions, two by phone, and one I flew out to Ohio to be there in-person.” Awed was as surprised as anyone when the judge granted her motion.

Awed discussing why she took matters into her own hands:

Looking back, Awed still can’t believe how it all played out. “Originally I was very trusting of the education system and institutions,” she said. “But now I’m very skeptical. I don’t feel like they have the students’ interests in mind.”

Argosy University was shut down in early 2019 and the Western State College of Law was sold in August 2019 to a for-profit college in Southern California.

You can read about Student Defense’s ongoing litigation surrounding the Dream Center’s collapse here.

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