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Student Defense Launches Investigation into Federal Student Aid Civil Rights Enforcement


January 19, 2022

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Student Defense Launches Investigation into Federal Student Aid Civil Rights Enforcement

Investigation comes after Student Defense filed a class action civil rights and consumer fraud lawsuit against Walden University on behalf of former students

On the heels of filing a class action civil rights lawsuit against Walden University, Student Defense is launching an investigation into the extent to which the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid (“FSA”) has ensured that colleges and universities comply with key civil rights laws. In late December, Student Defense submitted two requests under the Freedom of Information Act seeking documents regarding FSA’s enforcement of civil rights laws. A month since submission, the Department has yet to respond to those requests.

“We know that student debt disproportionately burdens women and people of color. We know that Federal Student Aid requires, on the front end, all colleges and universities to certify compliance with key civil rights laws as a condition of receiving student aid funds,” said Student Defense Vice President and Chief Counsel Dan Zibel. “And yet to date, we are unaware of a single instance in which Federal Student Aid has used its authorities to ensure compliance with those laws. That must change.”

All colleges and universities must sign a “Program Participation Agreement” with the Department, which allows students in attendance to access federal student loans and grants. In those agreements, institutions certify compliance with: 

  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its implementing regulations, (barring discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin); 
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and its implementing regulations (barring discrimination on the basis of sex); 
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and its implementing regulations (barring discrimination on the basis of physical handicap); and 
  • the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 and its implementing regulations. 

On January 7, 2022, Student Defense filed a class action civil rights and consumer fraud lawsuit on behalf of former students of Walden University. The complaint alleges Walden illegally “target[ted] Black and female students with a predatory program designed to hoodwink students and saddle them with onerous student debt.” Walden’s conduct, according to the Complaint, constituted “illegal reverse redlining and racial discrimination” under the civil rights laws.

The lawsuit against Walden is not the first time private litigants have alleged that an institution has engaged in reverse redlining. Similar to allegations in the Walden lawsuit, in both Britt v. Florida Career College (filed in 2020 by by the Project on Predatory Student Lending) and in Morgan v Richmond School of Health and Technology (filed in 2011 by Relman Colfax PLLC), plaintiffs alleged reverse redlinning and racial discrimination by a for-profit college.

“Private litigation is obviously one tool to ensure that schools do not violate students’ civil rights. But given clear disproportionalities around student debt, Federal Student Aid must play a lead role,” said Zibel. “Unfortunately, we have seen no indication of the Department of Education using a civil rights lens to tackle issues of student debt.”

In October 2020, as part of its 100 Day Docket initiative, Student Defense released a paper, Promoting Student Opportunity Through Enforcement-Based Accountability, calling on FSA to use its authorities to address civil rights violations by colleges. Among the other recommendations, Student Defense urged the Department to work closely with the Department’s Office for Civil Rights and to bring enforcement actions, as appropriate.