WASHINGTON — Aljanal Carroll never doubted her ability to beat the odds — not when a doctor told her she would never go to school after battling spinal meningitis as a child, or when she set her sights on a 4.0 GPA in her master’s program, or when she heard it was rare for black women to earn a doctorate in business administration.
Then she enrolled at Walden University.
Ms Carroll began taking classes at Walden, a for-profit online school, in the fall of 2017, lured by the promise that she could complete her doctorate in 18 months. She skimmed through her coursework, but when it came time for her “capstone project” — essentially a thesis — she hit a wall. His review board took weeks to provide feedback that amounted to little more than minor grammar and formatting suggestions, but required him to make revisions, thus starting the weeks-long wait all over again.
By the time Ms. Carroll’s project was approved, it was three years and tens of thousands of dollars in windfall tuition later.
“It started to make me feel like I couldn’t write or speak, which made no sense as I had just gotten a 4.0 for my masters,” said Ms Carroll, 49. “I knew it didn’t look right, but I was so far behind that I couldn’t go back.”
Her experience mirrors what a class action lawsuit alleges was an insidious ploy by Walden to lure and then trap students, especially those who were black and female, into a cycle of debt and despair. The National Student Legal Defense Network, which filed the lawsuit in January on behalf of former students, says Walden not only violated consumer protection laws, but also Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in s attacking minorities and women and distorting costs and credits. necessary to obtain a higher degree.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Maryland, accuses Walden of intentionally prolonging the process of completing a capstone project, forcing students to re-enroll for semesters at the end, paying tuition all the time. time, as they awaited approval from a three-member committee. As a result, according to the lawsuit’s estimates, the school overcharged the students by more than $28.5 million.
“Walden lured students in with the promise of an affordable degree, then chained them to increase profits,” said Aaron Ament, president of the National Student Legal Defense Network. “As if that weren’t enough, Walden specifically targeted black students and women for this predatory program, masking his discrimination with a focus on diversity.”
The lawsuit further claims that the school engaged in “reverse upgrading,” a practice commonly associated with housing discrimination, by targeting minority communities with its advertising and tailoring it to appeal to women.
Walden, who has faced similar lawsuits in the past, has denied any wrongdoing. Its mission, he says, is to serve a diverse community, and the school claims to have succeeded in that mission. In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, it said that in 2020 it awarded doctoral degrees to more black and female students than any other school in the United States.
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In the court filing, the university said the lawsuit was a “baseless and inflammatory attempt to repackage the Walden School’s mission into calculated discrimination.”
In response to questions about the lawsuit, a spokeswoman for Walden said he would “continue to work to ensure that groups of people who have traditionally been underrepresented in higher education know that it is possible to obtain an education and expand their access to opportunities at Walden University.”
The claim that Walden violated the civil rights of students is an unusual strategy to prove predatory practices. Critics of the for-profit university sector have often denounced its tactics as infringing on civil rights when pushing for administrative or policy changes, but Title VI and reverse redlining claims are notoriously difficult to prove in court. partly because of the need to prove intent.
Eileen Connor, director of the Harvard Predatory Student Loan Project, which has sued one of the only other lawsuits to bring Title VI claims on behalf of students at for-profit colleges and universities, said the courts were “suspicious of, even hostile to, these reverse redlining claims.
“It’s not that the claims don’t have merit or aren’t worth making,” she said. “But stopping the relentless targeting of people of color by predatory schools will require greater involvement from regulators like the Department of Education and the Federal Trade Commission.”
Still, some experts and observers say the lawsuit against Walden could provide a roadmap for holding for-profit institutions accountable for targeting vulnerable populations.
“We know there are organizations that rely on systemic racism to make money, and for-profit organizations are one of them,” said Dominique J. Baker, assistant professor of educational policy at Southern Methodist University. “This can potentially be an opening salvo where this work is done for other institutions, or an inspiration for the Department of Education and Congress to consider ways to hold institutions accountable for their actions. .”
The lawsuit highlights the unique vulnerabilities of black female students, who disproportionately enroll in for-profit schools and hold the most federal undergraduate and graduate student loans of any demographic.
Black women are increasingly becoming the face of the student debt crisis, as advocates pressure the Biden administration to write off the entire $1.7 trillion federal debt.
A brief released Thursday by the Education Trust, a think tank that supports comprehensive debt cancellation, highlighted the specific plight of black women. He detailed how they are disproportionately burdened with the high costs of a college education, a lack of wealth and obligations like parenthood that fuel their aspirations to attend college but also hinder their ability to pay for it.
Tressie McMillan Cottom, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a former for-profit college recruiter who exposed the industry’s tactics in a book, said those schools were able to sidestep claims they were looking for students based on their race. and gender using identifiers such as “underemployed, ambitious and underserved by existing institutions”.
But black women, she said, are particularly susceptible to falling prey to schools based on what they offer.
“Black women are socialized and conditioned to pursue every type of formal degree possible,” she said, “because they are the best way to overcome implicit biases in the job market — and you can sell at almost any price”.
In the lawsuit’s motion to dismiss, Walden said the suit failed to prove that the capstone phase of his program intentionally discriminates against black doctoral students, or that the capstone experience was different. for black students than it was for any other demographic. The school called the reverse redlining claim a “novel”, adding that “seeking to educate diverse communities does not equate to racial animosity.”
Walden also said that over the time the plaintiffs took the program, the school changed some aspects of it, including the cost of credits, and added a disclaimer that timelines for completion of the doctorate could vary.
Tiffany Fair, a senior plaintiff who was pursuing a doctorate in business administration, said she was only able to complete the program “because the university was tired of me complaining”.
“It was an absolute nightmare,” she said. “I don’t even know if anyone read my thesis, honestly.”
Ms Fair, who identifies as biracial and was the sole breadwinner in her family when she enrolled at Walden in 2016, said she was told she could graduate in two years and half and that with a military discount and a scholarship, she would make him pay just over $26,200.
In the end, she owed $89,000 in loans that covered what became a four-and-a-half-year business. By the time she graduated in January 2021, she had completed 15 courses and 49 capstone credits – 10 more courses and 30 more credits than she had been told she would need. Her project was approved with virtually no changes, she said.
Now Ms Fair, 43, has a student loan repayment of nearly $800 a month, which she described as ‘crippling’.
“I feel accomplished because I’ve worked hard,” she said. “But I’m ashamed, actually, to be part of such a predatory program, and I’ll never get back the time that was stolen from me and my children.”
In October 2020, Ms. Carroll, another lead plaintiff, got what she wanted: to move up the ladder at her predominantly white company, where she serves as controller. “I can stick my chest out a little more, maybe be seen for all the overtime that I’m working,” she said.
But her voice cracked as she recalled how she got there – paying almost $15,000 more in tuition than she had expected. At one point, she said, she had broken down, “screaming, crying and saying ‘I’m tired, I have two kids in college, I gave you everything'” to the chairman of her committee of synthesis.
“I didn’t quit because of my kids,” she said. “I didn’t want them to see that ‘if mum didn’t survive then I can’t make it’. To get that kind of degree and all the accolades behind it, I’m teaching my daughter that you can do anything, no matter what is said, no matter what statistics exist for us.