CHICAGO -- Keishana Mahone had spent a year studying graphic design when she got the inconceivable news: Her college was closing.
Being in her early 40s, and not wanting to spend years to get a degree, she'd hoped Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago would help her quickly sharpen her skills and advance her career. Instead she left school saddled with student loans and worthless academic credits.
"I was devastated," said Mahone, of the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. "Every time I think back on it, I want to cry."
Mahone is among hundreds of students whose lives were upended when the for-profit chain of schools shut down in December 2018. The Chicago and Schaumburg campuses -- not related to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago -- were among dozens owned by a troubled Pittsburgh company that were closed throughout the U.S.
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Education announced it was canceling the student loan debt for more than 1,500 people in Illinois and Colorado. The move will erase around 4,000 loans, officials said.
The announcement came amid increasing scrutiny over the department's oversight of the schools, and less than three weeks after Mahone and four others sued the department and Secretary Betsy DeVos alleging the agency was complicit in the mismanagement of the institutions.
The students and members of Congress have asserted that federal officials knew the schools were operating without accreditation, which should have disqualified them from Title IV federal financial aid programs and prevented students from borrowing to pay tuition and fees. Instead, they allege, the department authorized federal funding then tried to cover it up.
Aaron Ament, president of the National Student Legal Defense Network, which filed the federal lawsuit, called the announcement "a major victory" for the students.
"We're here today because many of these students had the courage to stand up and fight back," Ament said. "We are really thrilled for them that they will get their loans discharged and be able to move on with their lives."
Education Department officials have denied wrongdoing, instead blaming the school's oversight agency.