WASHINGTON, DC — 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 doctorates in business administration.
Then she enrolled at Walden University.
Carroll began taking classes at Walden, an online, for-profit school, in the fall of 2017, with the promise that she could complete her doctoral degree in 18 months. She sailed through with her research, but when the time came for her “capstone project”—essentially a dissertation—she hit a wall. His review committee would take weeks to provide feedback that is little more than minor grammatical and formatting suggestions, yet he needed to revise, resuming the week-long wait.
By the time Carroll’s project was approved, there were unexpected tuition costs of three years and tens of thousands of dollars later.
“It made me feel like I couldn’t write or speak, which didn’t make sense because I just earned a 4.0 for my master’s,” said Carroll, 49. “I knew it didn’t feel right, but I was so into it, I couldn’t hold back.”
Her experience shows that a class-action lawsuit was an insidious plan by Walden to lure and then entice students, especially those who were black and women, into a cycle of debt and despair. The National Student Legal Defense Network, which is representing the students along with civil rights law firm Railman Colfax, claims that Walden violated not only consumer protection laws, but also misappropriated costs and credits by victimizing minorities and women. It also violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by submitting the manner. Required to obtain an advanced degree.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Maryland, alleges that Walden intentionally sped up the process of completing a capstone project, requiring students to re-enroll for the end semester, paying tuition all the time while they were three. Awaiting approval from – Member Committee. As a result, the suit estimates, the school charged students more than $28.5 million.
“Walden lured students with the promise of an affordable degree, then inspired them to increase profits,” said Aaron Ament, president of the National Student Legal Defense Network. “As if that’s not bad enough, Walden specifically targeted black students and women for this violent program, masking its discrimination as a focus on diversity.”
The lawsuit further claims that the school engaged in “reverse redlining”, a practice usually 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, it says, is to serve a diverse community, and the school says it has succeeded in that mission. In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, it said that in 2020, it awarded doctorate degrees to more black and female students than any other school in the United States.
In a court filing, the university said the lawsuit was “a baseless and inflammatory attempt to turn Walden’s school mission into calculated discrimination.”
Responding to questions about the lawsuit, a Walden spokesman said it would “continue to work to ensure that those groups of people who are generally underrepresented in higher education know that Walden University.” It is possible to acquire education and expand access to opportunities.
The claim that Walden violated the civil rights of students is an unusual tactic to substantiate violent practices. Critics of the for-profit college sector have often condemned its strategy as imposing civil rights when pressing for administrative or policy changes, but Title VI and reverse-redlining claims are notoriously difficult to prove in court, in part because Need to prove the intention.
Eileen Connor, director of Harvard’s Project on Predatory Student Lending, which has pursued one of the few other lawsuits to make Title VI claims on behalf of students at for-profit colleges and universities, said the courts are “suspicious, if hostile. No, these are reverse-redlining claims.”
“It’s not that the claims don’t have merit or are not worth bringing,” she said. “But preventing the continued targeting of people of color by violent schools, will require greater involvement from regulators such as the Department of Education and the Federal Trade Commission.”
Still, some experts and observers say that the lawsuit against Walden may provide a road map for holding for-profit institutions responsible for targeting vulnerable populations.
“We know there are organizations that rely on systemic racism to turn a buck, and a part of it for profit,” said Dominic Baker, assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University. “It could potentially be an early salvo where this work is done for other institutions, or some inspiration for the Department of Education and Congress to think of ways to hold institutions accountable for their actions.”
The lawsuit highlights the unique vulnerabilities of black female students, who enroll in nonprofit schools and who have the most undergraduate and graduate federal student loan debt of any demographic.
Black women are increasingly becoming the face of the student loan crisis as advocates pressure the Biden administration to wipe out all $1.7 trillion in federal student loan debt.
A brief released Thursday by the Education Trust, a think tank that supports wholesale loan cancellation, highlighted the specific plight of black women. It details how they are burdened by the high cost of college, lack of funding, and obligations such as paternity that meet their aspirations to attend college, but in their ability to pay for it. also obstruct.
Tracy McMillan Cottum, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a former for-profit college recruiter who revealed the field’s strategy in a book, said such schools were able to dismiss claims that they were based on race. Search for students and gender using identifiers such as “unemployed, aspiring and poorly served by existing institutions.”
But black women, he said, are particularly likely to be victims of schools based on what they offer.
“Black women are socialized and conditioned to have every kind of formal credentials possible,” she said, “because they are the best way to address implicit bias in the labor market—and you can sell it at any cost.” Huh.
In the motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Walden said the lawsuit failed to prove that the core phase of its program intentionally discriminated against Black doctoral students or that Capstone’s experience was comparable to that of Black and female students from any other demographic. I was different. The school called the reverse-redlining claim “novel”, adding that “seeking to educate different communities does not equate to racial animosity.”
Walden also noted that over time as plaintiffs joined the program, the school changed some aspects of it, including the cost of credits, and added a disclaimer that doctoral completion times could vary.
Tiffany Fair, a prominent plaintiff pursuing her 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 whether anyone has read my dissertation honestly.”
Fair, who identifies as biracial and was her family’s sole breadwinner when she enrolled at Walden in 2016, said she was told she could complete her degree in 2 1/2 years and join the military. With discounts and scholarships, she will pay. A little over $26,200.
In the end, he owed $89,000 in debt, which was involved in the 4 1/2-year effort. By the time she graduated in January 2021, she had completed 15 courses and 49 capstone credits – 10 more classes and 30 more credits than she was told she would need. He said his project was approved almost without any changes.
Now Fair, 43, has student loan payments of about $800 a month, which she called “crippling.”
“I feel accomplished because I’ve worked hard,” she said. “But I’m ashamed, really, for being part of a program that’s so violent, and I’ll never get back the time that was stolen from me and my kids.”
In October 2020, Carroll, a leading plaintiff, got what she wanted: to advance the ranks of her predominantly white company, where she serves as a comptroller. “I can stick my chest out a little more, probably to be seen for all the extra hours I work,” she said.
But her voice broke when she remembered how she got there: by paying about $15,000 in tuition, more than she had estimated. At one point, she said, she broke down, “shouting, crying and saying, ‘I’m tired. I have two kids in college. I’ve given you everything,'” is her capstone. to the chairman of the committee.
“I didn’t leave because of my kids,” she said. “I didn’t want them to see ‘If Mama didn’t make it, I can’t make it.’ For this type of degree and all the accolades behind it, I’m teaching my daughter that you can do anything, no matter what the numbers are for us.”