President Obama famously said in 2014 that “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone.” Although he has used his pen to sign some substantial changes in federal higher education policy (such as ending the bank-based student loan program in favor of federal Direct Loans), his pen has been used more frequently to authorize the Department of Education to start implementing new regulations without going through Congress. The regulatory process has been used to expand income-driven repayment programs, implement gainful employment rules for students in select vocationally-oriented programs, and tie federal TEACH grants to some measure of teachers’ effectiveness. These efforts have been generally opposed by congressional Republicans, which have held a majority in at least one chamber of Congress since 2011.
But from the perspective of colleges, the newest set of regulations may end up being the most influential. The Department of Education recently unveiled the final regulations known as “borrower defense to repayment” in a response to concerns about colleges defrauding students or suddenly closing their doors. These wide-ranging regulations, which will take effect on July 1, 2017 (a summary is available here) allow individuals with student loans to get relief if there is a breach of contract or court decision affecting that college or if there is “a substantial misrepresentation by the school about the nature of the educational program, the nature of financial changes, or the employability of graduates.”
The language regarding “substantial misrepresentation” could have the largest impact for both for-profit and nonprofit colleges, as students will have six years to bring lawsuits if loans are made after July 1, 2017. Notably, this language treats intentional misrepresentation and honest errors in the same way, and also does not define what “substantial” is. For example, if a student enrolls in a program with a posted job placement rate of 98% and later finds out that college administrators e-mailed each other about how to hide a 48% placement rate, most courts would probably consider this to be substantial misrepresentation. But what if a well-meaning person accidentally transposed an 89% placement rate to get 98%? These errors do happen in data submitted to the federal government, and currently there is no penalty for this type of mistake.
As some have warned, the ambiguity of the language will likely open up the door for more lawsuits against colleges with a wide range of misrepresentations—particularly as the regulations allow for class-action lawsuits that colleges could previously restrict. Courts across the country vary considerably in their friendliness toward plaintiffs relative to defendants, meaning that colleges located in more plaintiff-friendly states such as California and Illinois may be more at risk of lawsuits than colleges in defendant-friendly states such as Delaware and Iowa. But even if a college can prevail in a lawsuit, it still has to pay its legal fees and also may be subject to bad publicity.
Although these new regulations are a clear and needed victory for students who attended undeniably fraudulent colleges, the ripple effects regarding the definition of “substantial” misrepresentation could affect a broad group of well-intending nonprofit colleges that either made honest mistakes or happened across a sympathetic judge or jury. Eventually, a series of court cases—perhaps in conjunction with additional federal guidance—should help settle the legal landscape, but in the meantime colleges will be watching these regulations with a great deal of anxiety.