It’s September again, which means college students all across America are moving into dorm rooms, registering for classes, buying textbooks, figuring out how to do laundry and…filing lawsuits?
In two nightmarish cases filed this past year, students have claimed that their schools misrepresented and even blatantly lied about their ability to provide a quality education—leaving some students thousands of dollars in debt with nothing to show for it.
If that sounds like an outcome you’d like to avoid—or if it sounds all too familiar—keep reading. Below, we’ll get into the details of the two cases, go over a lesser-known (but vitally important) factor to consider when choosing a college or program, and tell you what you can do if you feel you were deceived by your school.
School’s Out Forever: Education Corporation of America Case
On December 5, 2018, for-profit college conglomerate Education Corporation of America (ECA) abruptly announced that it would be closing more than 70 campuses nationwide by the end of the month. This apparently came as quite a surprise to the nearly 20,000 students enrolled in ECA’s schools, which included Virginia College, Brightwood College, Ecotech Institute, and Golf Academy of America.
Before two weeks had passed, lawsuits had already started to roll in. In one suit, some of the plaintiffs claim they were told in September 2018 that ECA was only closing 26 campuses and that “the majority of currently enrolled students” would be able to complete their coursework and earn their degrees or certificates. After relying on these representations throughout the fall semester, the students found out during the last few weeks of classes that this wasn’t true—and that they weren’t going to receive a refund for the tuition money they paid, according to the complaint.
ECA’s announcement came on the heels of a decision made on December 4 by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) to suspend the school’s accreditation due to concerns with “student progress, outcomes, … student satisfaction, certification and licensures, and staff turnover,” as well as the company’s shaky financial situation. This loss of accreditation was apparently the final blow for ECA, which stated that it was “unable to acquire additional capital to operate our schools.”
When it comes to comparing colleges, accreditation is a lesser-known consideration, but it can make or break a student’s pursuit of a degree or career, as we’ll see in the next example.
“Wasted Effort”: Grand Canyon University Case
In a more recent case filed in August 2019, two former Grand Canyon University students claim their school lied about whether its online degree programs were accredited and caused them to spend thousands of dollars pursuing “worthless” degrees.
One of the plaintiffs says she was $65,000 deep into pursuing a doctoral degree in teaching when she learned that her home state of Georgia would not accept GCU coursework or degrees. The reason? Her online program was apparently not accredited—a fact she claims she was never told when pushed by a GCU recruiter into enrolling in the college.
The other plaintiff recounts a similar story but further claims that she was specifically told by GCU that its mental health counseling degree program was accredited and would allow her to become a licensed professional counselor in Ohio. She later found out, according to the lawsuit, that the school itself was accredited, but her program was not—meaning the degree she was pursuing was essentially worthless and would put her no further on her chosen career path.
“No student,” the case reads, “would ever knowingly enroll in a non-accredited professional degree program that does not serve their goals.”
Accreditation: The Mark of a Quality Education
Each of these cases was rooted in accreditation—or, more specifically, the lack thereof. An understanding of accreditation could help students avoid spending time and money on an education that doesn’t meet their needs or expectations.
What exactly is accreditation and why is it important?
Institutions of higher education are either accredited or non-accredited. An accredited college is one that has been evaluated by an accrediting agency and found to meet certain standards of quality. Accrediting agencies consider factors such as program requirements, faculty qualifications and satisfaction, admissions policies, student resources, and student achievement when deciding whether to grant accreditation.
Whether your college or program is accredited matters because employers and state governments may not recognize degrees from non-accredited institutions, which can present challenges when you’re seeking employment or attempting to further your career. As we saw in the Grand Canyon case, some states will not allow you to take the necessary tests to become certified in your field or apply for a license if you don’t have a degree from an accredited institution or program.
Non-accredited institutions are also unable to offer federal loans to students and cannot be granted federal funding, which could affect their ability to operate. ACICS’s denial of accreditation to ECA was reportedly the final blow that caused the institution to close and its students to be left empty-handed.
How do I find out if a college is accredited?
First, check with the school itself. You can try calling the admissions department or check online on the school’s website. Here is an example from my alma mater.
Even if you find out directly from your school that it is accredited, you should still double-check with the accrediting agency to make sure your school is on its list. As we saw in the Grand Canyon case, you may not want to just take a school’s word for it. Here you can find Rutgers among its accrediting agency’s list of members.
To be truly assured of your college’s ability to provide a quality education, you should also check the reputation of the accrediting agency itself. The Department of Education (DOE), though it does not take on the responsibility of accrediting institutions, publishes a list of “recognized” accrediting agencies, or agencies that the Department has determined “to be reliable authorities as to the quality of education or training” provided by colleges and programs.
In the ECA case, the college’s accrediting agency, ACICS, had been on shaky ground with the DOE ever since the collapse of Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, two for-profit college chains the agency oversaw. The DOE removed ACICS’s recognition in 2016, and it was only reinstated in November 2018, just days before the accreditor signed ECA’s death warrant.
What’s the difference between institutional and programmatic accreditation?
Another consideration when looking into accreditation is the difference between institutional and programmatic accreditation.
Institutional accreditation is granted to a college or university as a whole when an accreditor determines that each part of the institution is contributing to its overall goal.
Specific programs, departments, or schools within an institution can also be granted what’s called “programmatic” or “specialized” accreditation. In certain fields, such as education and healthcare, programmatic accreditation is sometimes required for obtaining state-issued licenses and certificates.
In the Grand Canyon case we discussed above, the college as a whole was accredited, according to the plaintiffs, but their specific programs were not. As a result, the case said, the plaintiffs’ state governments would not have recognized their degrees nor allowed them to apply for the licenses they sought.
When you’re checking whether your college or program is accredited, make sure you look into which type of accreditation is required to accomplish your career goals.
This Information Is Coming Too Late for Me. Do I Have Any Recourse?
If you’ve found yourself in a situation similar to what the plaintiffs described in these two cases, you do have some options. You could:
File a lawsuit.
If you believe your college wronged you, you can look into filing a lawsuit. You’ll need to prove that the school deceived you in some way, and an attorney can help you with navigating the process.
If your college’s conduct affected many other students, you could also look into filing a class action lawsuit, or keep an eye out for existing cases. Here are some we’ve written about already:
Apply for loan forgiveness.
The Department of Education does offer some options for loan forgiveness. If your school closed while you were still attending or shortly after you withdrew, you can apply for a closed school discharge. If your application is granted, the government will discharge the federal loans you received to attend the shuttered college.
Another option is called “borrower defense to repayment,” sometimes referred to as “borrower defense,” which allows individuals to apply for the forgiveness of student loans used to attend a school that misled them or engaged in other types of misconduct. You can find out more about that process on the Federal Student Aid Office’s website.
In the interest of full disclosure, the DOE has apparently been ignoring borrower defense applications since June 2018, according to a class action lawsuit filed this past June. The lawsuit is seeking that the court order the Department “to start granting or denying [the plaintiffs’] borrower defenses” and vacate its alleged policy of failing to consider applications.
Is There Any Surefire Way to Avoid Being Tricked by a College?
Probably not, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned after spending time in the class action world, it’s the importance of doing your research. This is especially true when you’re making a decision as crucial as where to continue your education. Make sure you explore your options, check a school’s credentials with as many reliable sources as you can find, and ask for advice. Take your time when making your decision, and don’t let a college pressure you into enrolling before you’re ready. Even if you have to wait another semester, that’s much better than wasting time and resources on an option that won’t help you.
Remember, paying for an education is an investment, and investments always come with risks. But if you do your research and find answers to your questions beforehand, you’ll be better prepared to make a sound decision.