WASHINGTON (AP) — The federal government will erase much of the debt of students who attended the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges, officials announced Monday, as part of a new plan that could cost taxpayers as much as $3.6 billion.
Corinthian Colleges was one of the largest for-profit schools when it nearly collapsed last year and became a symbol of fraud in the world of higher education and student loans. According to investigators, Corinthian schools charged exorbitant fees, lied about job prospects for its graduates and, in some cases, encouraged students to lie about their circumstances to get more federal aid.
In a plan orchestrated by the Department of Education, some of the Corinthian schools closed while others were sold before the chain filed for bankruptcy this spring. The biggest question has been what should happen to the debt incurred by students whose schools were sold. The law already provides for debt relief for students of schools that close, so long as they apply within 120 days.
The latest plan expands debt relief to students who attended a now-closed school as far back as a year ago. And it streamlines the process for students whose schools were sold but believe they were victims of fraud.
"We will make this process as easy as possible for them, including by considering claims in groups wherever possible, and hold institutions accountable," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement.
As an example, the department said it has already found that many programs at a California subsidiary of Corinthian Colleges, known as Heald College, were "misrepresented" to students. So any student enrolled in that school between 2010 and 2015 would likely qualify for relief.
The amount of debt relief could be staggering. Officials estimate that some 40,000 borrowers at the Heald College alone took on more than $540 million in loans that potentially qualify for debt relief.
But the final amount could climb significantly when looking across all Corinthian Schools, which include Everest and WyoTech. In all, the department estimates that about $3.6 billion in federal loans was given to Corinthian students.
Duncan told reporters in a phone call on Monday that the department has no way of knowing how many students will come forward and ask for help.
"It's an unknown quantity at this point," he said of the final price tag.
Former officials at Corinthian Colleges couldn't be immediately reached for comment. A former lawyer for the school said he no longer represents the chain of colleges since it went bankrupt.
Most of the company's assets have been sold and its stock worthless.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., praised the move by the administration, even as it left glaring questions about whether the government could have done more to protect students in the first place.
"It is our responsibility to hold servicers and colleges accountable to prevent future students from having to endure anything like this debacle ever again," Cummings said.