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October 30, 2017

Mary Colleen Murphy of Scituate, Massachusetts, was attending the American Career Institute when the for-profit college abruptly shutdown. Murphy has been waiting two years for student loan debt relief. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

UPDATE October 20, 2017: It’s unwelcome news for students who attended defunct for-profit chains Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute. The U.S. Education Department is considering only partially forgiving federal loans issued to those students.

Last year, the Obama administration promised to erase the loans of tens of thousands of former students because their for-profit schools made fraudulent claims. President Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the Education Department would keep that promise, but sources inside the department say DeVos is considering offering only partial relief.

A department spokesperson declined to comment.

Both Corinthian and ITT Tech had campuses in Massachusetts. It's not clear how many students in the state could be affected if DeVos backs away from her promise.

DeVos has frozen Obama-era for-profit regulations, saying they could cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

In July, Massachusetts and 17 other states sued DeVos, demanding the courts let them go into effect.

This story originally aired on July 23, 2017.

The Obama administration promised tens of thousands of former for-profit college students whose schools shut down that their loans would be forgiven. Now, under the Trump administration, these students find themselves in limbo.

The U.S. Department of Education has said it will keep promises to students who attended defunct for-profit colleges like Corinthian Colleges, ITT Technical Institute, and the American Career Institute. But many are still waiting.

In 2011, Mary Colleen Murphy was working three jobs as a nursing assistant, nanny, and waitress. She was struggling to pay the bills, so she decided to go back to school, hoping to get ahead.

“I was looking for a solid career – a well-paying career so that I could have a normal job with normal hours and put my four children through school,” she said in a recent interview.

Murphy searched online for colleges, and she found the American Career Institute (ACI), which had a Braintree campus near her home in Scituate.

“I thought I had done my research,” she said. “I recognized that their main headquarters was in Maryland and they had satellite campuses around Massachusetts.”

Murphy visited the Braintree campus, where she says recruiters persuaded her to change her mind about what to study.

“I was going for the medical field, and they suggested that I get into multimedia design and graphic arts because they had numerous employers that were hiring their graduates and the salaries were very large,” she recalled.” They showed me salaries between $80,000 and $120,000 to start.”

To enroll, Murphy signed up for federal student loans totaling $22,000, and she began classes the next day.

Today, nearly 50,000 students attend about 200 for-profit career schools in Massachusetts. Across the country, nearly 2 million students are enrolled in for-profit college chains like DeVry and the University of Phoenix.

After Murphy enrolled, the federal government found that ACI and other for-profit schools did not live up to their grandiose claims. So the Obama administration decided to step in.

In 2014, Education Secretary John King shut off the spigot of federal funds to schools that could not back up their job placement claims.

“When Americans invest their time, their money, their energy, they have a right to expect that they will graduate with a high-quality degree that will allow them to be competitive in the 21st century economy,” King said in a March 2016 press conference in Boston.

Without federal funds, dozens of for-profit colleges went bankrupt. ACI shut down a year after Murphy enrolled in graphic arts classes.

“I was so far behind, yet I was still receiving A’s in every class even though I didn’t finish all of the assignments because I didn’t know how,” Murphy explained. “As I was leaving, they handed me my degree. It’s not an associate. It’s just a certificate, but they handed me a certificate and said, ‘Good luck!’”

Other schools soon followed.

In the summer of 2014, Corinthian Colleges collapsed. It was the largest college shutdown in American higher education history.

Two years later, ITT Tech, another for-profit giant, closed its doors.

Last year, the Obama administration told former for-profit students left in the cold that they were eligible for debt relief.

So far, more than 96,000 former students have filed claims.

Only a quarter of those students have had their loans forgiven.

Last month, the Trump administration put the Obama-era regulations on hold.

“We are seeing the system gummed up,” said Barmak Nassirian, a federal student aid expert at the American Association of State Colleges. “You can’t leave thousands of people in limbo.”

Nassirian believes the Trump administration will relax regulations on for-profit colleges.

“I think the Trump administration is very committed to deregulation and they may well take their foot off the pedal in terms of oversight and accountability,” he said.

Since Donald Trump’s victory in November, for-profit college stocks have soared and the industry has been breathing a sigh of relief.

“We certainly, the day after the election, thought we had a second chance to make our case and be who we are and to move forward,” said Steve Gunderson, the for-profit education sector’s top lobbyist in Washington. The former Republican congressman from Wisconsin says the Obama administration’s regulations targeted for-profit colleges unfairly.

“There are good and bad schools in every sector of higher education and I’ll be the first to tell you, our sector had some bad schools, and you should go after them. Guess what? So does every other sector of higher education. And if you’re going to get rid of the bad, then be consistent. Be fair. Go after all of them.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has put a temporary freeze on Obama-era regulations. She says those regulations could leave taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars.

Earlier in July, Massachusetts and 17 other states sued DeVos, asking the courts to let the regulations go into effect.

“Unfortunately, this has been an industry where we’ve seen a lot of fraud,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who is leading the lawsuit arguing DeVos cannot unilaterally strike down regulations.

“Betsy DeVos, instead of doing her job as secretary of education, where she’s supposed to be looking out for students in this country, has now decided to do a 180 and turn to and support directly the for-profit school industry,” Healey said.

DeVos and the Education Department have denounced the lawsuit.

For students like Mary Colleen Murphy, the Obama regulations may have come too late to save her from going into debt at a for-profit college that didn’t help her get ahead. She’s been waiting two years for relief, she said.

Mary Colleen Murphy keeps track of her federal student loans, hoping the Trump administration will make good on a promise to forgive them made by the Obama administration. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

“I have four children. One just graduated, two are in college, and one is a junior in high school. I am trying to take loans out for my two current kids in school,” Murphy said. “I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

Murphy can only hope the new administration will keep its promise to wipe her debt off the books.

WGBH News intern Nelson Reed Contributed to this report.

LISTEN: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey joins PRI's The Takeaway to discuss the lawsuit.

Earlier: Where Are The 40,000 Students ITT Tech Left Behind When It Closed?

corinthian colleges, betsy devos, higher ed, Maura Healey, confronting cost, for-profit

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