Settlement Includes $3.4M in Forgiveness of Student Debt Tied to “Income Share Agreements” that Violated Federal Consumer Protection Laws Governing Private Student Loans
TRENTON – Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin and the Division of Consumer Affairs (“Division”) today announced a $4.6 million settlement with a Middlesex County for-profit school and its founder and president that resolves allegations that the school used false and misleading job advertisements to funnel students into its high-cost information technology (“IT”) programs and falsely claimed that Income Share Agreements (“ISAs”) requiring students to pledge a portion of their future income in exchange for upfront money to pay for the programs were not loans and would not create debt.
Sollers, Inc., doing business as Sollers Education, LLC, (collectively “Sollers”) reached separate settlements with the Division and the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) to resolve the agencies’ concurrent investigations into consumer complaints related to educational programs offered by Sollers.
The consumer complaints generally alleged that consumers applied for jobs in response to online employment postings for IT positions on sites like indeed.com and received a response from Sollers that the consumers needed to complete an IT training program in order to be eligible for the position. Sollers advised the consumers that they must pay the $15,000 cost of the training program via an ISA, but assured consumers that a job was essentially guaranteed at the end of the program, according to the complaints. Consumers alleged that no employment was obtained at the end of the program they completed with Sollers.
Pursuant to the settlements with the Division and the FTC, Sollers will cancel a total of approximately $3.4 million in student debt tied to the Sollers ISAs. Of the nearly 400 students nationwide whose debt will be erased under the settlements, more than 60 are New Jersey residents.
The New Jersey settlement, which includes Sollers’ founder and president Siba Padhi, also includes a $1.2 million civil penalty, prohibits Sollers and Padhi from issuing ISAs to any students in relation to any of their programs, and permanently enjoins them from attempting to collect any debt owed to Sollers pursuant to ISAs – including all unpaid interest and fees related to that debt – whether possessed by Sollers, a collection agency, or other party. Within 10 days of the settlement, Sollers and Padhi must direct collection agencies and other parties to cease attempts to collect the debt and direct credit reporting agencies to delete the debt from students’ credit reporting file. Any student debt payments received by Sollers or Padhi after the entry of the settlement must be returned to the payee within 10 days.
“New Jersey will not allow for-profit schools to deceive students with false claims and promises or subject them to unlawful financing schemes that push them into debt instead of helping them reach their career goals,” said Attorney General Platkin. “Schools that fail to comply with laws and regulations that protect students from financial abuses and fraud will be held accountable.”
“For many students, the decision to pursue education and training programs requires careful consideration of the upfront cost and the long-term financial benefits after graduation. By deceiving students about the debt they would incur under the ISAs and misleading them about their job prospects after graduation, Sollers denied students critical information they needed – and were entitled to by law – to make informed decisions,” said Cari Fais, Acting Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. “This settlement holds Sollers and Siba Padhi responsible for the financial harm they caused students and requires them to make changes to their business practices to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
The Division began investigating Sollers in late 2020, following a referral from the Office of Attorney General for the District of Columbia and upon receipt of consumer complaints. Working collaboratively with the FTC, investigators with the Division’s Office of Consumer Protection found evidence that Sollers and Padhi allegedly violated the NJ Consumer Fraud Act and the Regulations Governing General Advertising, including by:
- advertising false hiring rates for its graduates, including claims that it had “an 82% placement rate within three months of graduation” and that “90% of our students are placed within 3 months of graduation” when in reality, the job placement rate was much lower;
- advertising false claims of corporate and academic partnerships;
- funneling students into its IT programs via misleading job placement advertisements for high-salary IT jobs that often stated “candidates will be paid” without mentioning Sollers or the cost for the training, which typically ranged from $10,000 to $15,000 for four- to six-week programs;
- making false statements that their ISAs are not a loan or credit; and
- violating the federal Truth in Lending Act (“TILA”) and the FTC Holder Rule by failing to include required disclosures and including a prepayment penalty in their ISAs.
Under the settlement terms, contained in a Consent Order filed with the Division yesterday, Sollers and Padhi must also comply with the terms of the FTC settlement, which was executed today. That settlement, among other things, requires Sollers to notify students of their debt forgiveness and, going forward, to provide the FTC with detailed records of the school’s business transactions for a 20-year period.
Students do not need to take any action to qualify for or receive the benefits provided under the settlements.
Investigator Michelle Davis, under the supervision of Jennifer Micco, conducted the investigation on behalf of the Division of Consumer Affairs and the State of New Jersey.
Deputy Attorney General Renee Cadmus and Assistant Section Chief Chanel Van Dyke, under the supervision of Consumer Fraud Prosecution Section Chief Jesse Sierant, and Assistant Attorney General Jennifer S. Schiefelbein within the Division of Law’s Affirmative Civil Enforcement Practice Group represented the State in the matter.