Debt relief scramble ensues among Ross students, graduates

Pending court settlement spurs 'borrower defense' applicants to file before Nov. 3

Published: August 26, 2022

This story has an important update

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Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts is one of 153 institutions named in a proposed class-action settlement brought by graduates seeking federal student loan debt relief.

The U.S. government's sweeping attempt to fix broken parts in its federal student loan system has borrowers across the country in a rush to get their loans erased, including students and graduates of Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine.

The Caribbean-based program, part of DeVry Education Group (rebranded in 2017 as Adtalem Global Education), annually graduates more American veterinarians than any other school in the world. It is one of more than 150 mostly for-profit institutions identified by the U.S. Department of Education as having exhibited "substantial misconduct" as defined in a program known as borrower defense to repayment, or BDR.

The federal student loan repayment program was enacted in 1995 but largely dormant until recently. It gives borrowers the right to have their government education loans discharged if they can prove they were defrauded, misled by a school's aggressive recruitment practices or subjected to false promises about a program's admissions selectivity or job prospects upon graduation. "Specifically, you may assert borrower defense by demonstrating that the school, through an act or omission, violated state law directly related to your federal student loan or to the educational services for which the loan was provided," the USDE Federal Student Aid Office says

Efforts to implement BDR are among a suite of actions by President Joe Biden to ease the burden of student debt. This week, the USDE announced that the government will forgive up to $20,000 in federal loans for borrowers within certain income thresholds, and extend a pandemic-era pause on loan repayments for all borrowers through Dec. 31. 

So far, nearly $4 billion in student debt has been discharged for 208,000 borrowers under BDR, and former Ross veterinary students are or aim to be among the relief recipients. 

The buzz about borrower defense has attracted former and current Ross veterinary students to private Facebook groups, Reddit forums and a message board of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession, where borrowers share stories of their debt burdens and look for guidance on how to apply for BDR. 

Most who frequent the online discussions hesitate to be publicly identified, fearing repercussions in the form of withheld transcripts, negative attention or other backlash. In an email to the VIN News Service, one veterinarian awaiting a decision on her application said she feared that revealing her name publicly could somehow jeopardize her chance for a loan discharge.

In brief

Anonymously, she offers guidance online to former classmates and colleagues: "My main motivation is to spread the word for others to apply before the Nov. 3 deadline," she told VIN News. 

Sweet v. Cardona

That's when a federal judge is set to finalize a settlement that he preliminarily approved this month in Sweet v. Cardona (previously Sweet v. DeVos), a class-action lawsuit brought by borrowers who say the USDE ignored their BDR applications when the department was headed by Betsy DeVos, who was education secretary during the Trump administration.

In June, attorneys for both sides proposed a deal that would automatically cancel $6 billion in federal student debt for more than 264,000 borrowers who attended 153 mostly for-profit institutions

Prospective BDR applicants who did not submit claims in time to be included in the class action still have a chance for fast-tracked debt relief, so long as they file before the judge's final approval of the settlement. As part of the settlement agreement, the Biden administration has committed to quickly resolving any remaining BDR applications. If it fails to make a decision on the merits of a case within 36 months of the settlement, the debt will be wiped clean.

That would be "life-changing" for a veterinary technician who says she entered the Ross veterinary school in 2015 but failed out in 2017, leaving the program owing $200,000 in student loans. "I can't even consider going back to school (vet school or otherwise) because of my debt!" she recently wrote in a Facebook discussion. "… Keeping my fingers crossed this works out!!"

Others have expressed similar hopes and are on the lookout for evidence to buttress their BDR claims. "In case you're wondering, they raised tuition three times while we were enrolled," a Ross graduate told colleagues in a private Facebook forum, asserting that the program — among the most expensive for Americans to attend — has a history of downplaying the cost. "Our semester even started a petition, which was laughed at by the administration." 

On Reddit, another Ross veterinary graduate offered a nine-point list of evidence used by BDR applicants, such as recommendations to use a financial advising service whose founder was later convicted of fraud, broken promises about credit transfer and scholarships, and pressure to enroll in unnecessary classes.

"Reading all these documents takes time, but there are things in them," the poster said. "There are Rossies out there who are searching daily to help find things for us."

Response from Ross

The USDE has erased the debt of numerous borrowers who are not part of Sweet v. Cardona. Since February, the agency has discharged nearly $72 million in loans held by some 1,800 borrowers who, according to USDE, were lured by DeVry Education Group with phony job placement claims advertised between 2008 and 2015. In addition to DVMs, DeVry confers associate, bachelor's and master's degrees in technology, science, business and the arts to students online and on campuses throughout the United States and Canada. It also owns Ross University School of Medicine in Barbados.

Last week, USDE announced that it will seek to recoup the cost of discharges from DeVry, to the tune of $24 million and counting. The USDE says it still has some 20,000 DeVry-related claims under review. VIN News filed a Freedom of Information Act inquiry last week to determine how many relate to the Ross veterinary school and the nature of the claims. The request is pending.

In an email to VIN News, Jacquelyn Manetakis, senior director of communications for the veterinary program, did not say whether DeVry plans to appeal any assessment by USDE but addressed the proposed Sweet v. Cardona settlement. She noted that the case "does not determine any wrongdoing of any universities" but "forgives loans from listed institutions and outlines a timetable for doing so."

The veterinary program, she maintained, has a "40-year history of providing access to quality and equitable education."

Transcript concerns

Some Ross graduates are hesitant to apply for BDR out of concern that if their loans are discharged and the government seeks reimbursement from Ross, the veterinary school will withhold their transcripts — a step institutions may take if it's believed that a student and former student owes them money. "If you have an outstanding balance preventing release of your transcript, we will not be able to issue your official transcript," the veterinary school's website says

Asked by VIN News whether Ross would withhold transcripts from borrowers whose loans are discharged under BDR, Manetakis did not answer. VIN News also asked five other institutions identified in Sweet v. Cardona. Only Purdue University Global, an online institution, responded definitively. "Purdue Global will not withhold credits or transcripts from those who make a request," said Thomas Schott, senior director of strategic communications.

Raphael Moore, VIN's general counsel, believes that anything else is unlikely: "The idea that a school will even consider denying a transcript request from a student solely because their loan has been discharged under the BDR program is ludicrous and would likely open the school to liability. Such action would surely be perceived as retaliation by the school against the very student who proved they have been sufficiently wronged to have their loan discharged in the first place.

"I would hope schools would come forward now to dispel such fears," he continued, "since refusing to do so feels like a veiled threat intended to deter students from filing claims."

Update: On Nov. 16, Judge William Alsup gave final approval to the $6 billion settlement in Sweet v. Cardona, resolving the borrowers' class action. As part of the settlement, borrowers are entitled to full loan discharge if they attended and applied for debt relief from one of 153 schools, including Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, that the Department of Education suspects defrauded students.

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