The Biden administration’s recent cancellation of $5.8 billion in loans held by 560,000 borrowers who attended Corinthian Colleges did not materialize out of the blue — it came after years of collective action supported by a debtors union called the Debt Collective.
And while all of us in this movement have rejoiced at the news about Corinthian Colleges — a chain of for-profit schools that closed seven years ago after lying to and defrauding borrowers — we also know how this victory was just the beginning of what needs to happen to abolish the immoral student debts that continue to loom over millions more people across the country.
The road to the Biden administration’s recent debt cancellation was paved by former students of Corinthian Colleges who, with the help of the Debt Collective, launched a debt strike2015. Borrowers demanded that the Department of Education provide relief. I joined the campaign soon after because I recognized the strikers’ story as my own.
After I graduated high school, my story of being swindled by a for profit college began in 2009. Like many people of working-class background, I grew up believing that borrowing money for school was an investment that would secure my future and allow me to move on. But since neither of my parents had attended college, I didn’t know much about the process of enrolling.
I received a postcard from The New England Institute of Art in my senior year of highschool, promising a career in media including television and gaming. I have always been passionately interested in the media arts. My immigrant parents were afraid that such a career path would be too risky. Thanks to The New England Institute of Art’s bold job placement claims — some campuses boasted that between 88.5 percent and 89.5 percent of its graduates found jobs in their chosen fields, even though (like other for-profits) they counted any job in its figures, including fast food and retail — even my skittish parents were made to feel safe about sending me to the school. The school bombarded us with communications emphasizing that the education would be “affordable.”
I didn’t know what a “for-profit” school was when I started out. I didn’t realize that a school that advertised on billboards, in public transport, and online could lie. If you told me that a college recognized by the Department of Education could make a lot of money by charging students with debt, then I would have thought you were crazy. This is what is actually happening. Schools like mine continue to be open and scam students despite the Department of Education closing them. all the power it needs to shut them down.
Soon after enrolling, I started to suspect something was wrong. Students I knew graduated. But the careers they had been promised were not there for them. The few media industry professionals I was able to meet through school were vocal about why Art Institutes’s graduates could not be hired in the field. They claimed that our education wasn’t up to standard. It was humiliating. But I didn’t know how to do anything about what I knew.
Even more troubling was that I didn’t realize I was taking out loans during the first three years. My school officials had assured me that Pell grants would pay for my education. sky-high tuition. They asked me to sign documents I didn’t understand. They said it was necessary for me to continue my education and used a lot of language that I didn’t understand. They acted like I should understand everything they said, and I was afraid of looking “stupid,” so I signed. My senior year was the first time I took out a loan. The costs increased as I neared graduation. When I saw the loan statement I realized that the school had signed my up for loans for years, without my knowledge.
I left the school in August 2013 feeling ashamed and disgusted. Ex-students were venting their frustrations online, and I knew I wasn’t the only one. I also took notes and collected as many documents as I could from the school. I set up a Facebook group to allow us to share our stories. Soon, the group filled with former students from Art Institutes’s campuses across the country. It was cathartic, and eye-opening. Many of us were exposed to even more cruelty. Former students and faculty also joined the group. They called us lazy and criticized us for not being enough.
Our group grew in size until it became too loud to ignore. We became visible to more college fraud victims. This led us to the Debt Collective as well as to a team of lawyers at Harvard’s Project on Predatory Student Lending, which looked at all the documents we had gathered to prove the school’s wrongdoing and created a legal demand letterOur behalf, which ultimately led to the filing a formal complaint. I discovered that there were other for-profit colleges using the same predatory tactics. I felt motivated and inspired by my fellow debtors. demand the cancellation of our loans.
Around this time, I also learned that The New England Institute of Art’s real placement rate for my program was 22 percent, according to a now-removed page on its own website that I captured in a screenshot. The numbers they claimed to have convinced me and my family to sign up were flat-out lies.
For-profit students such as me have been fighting for years. From rallies in New OrleansTo protests in Washington, D.C.Through three presidential administrations, we have maintained pressure on the federal government. We came to see debt as a collective burden and stopped looking at it as an individual problem. The core issues are predatory lending and deceptive marketing practices. Students are also being exploited for profit. We also know that for-profit colleges are not “bad apples” in an otherwise fair higher education system. Schools like the Art Institutes are only available because there is a demand for them and because they cater to certain students. The wealthy and well-connected don’t send their own kids to places like The New England Institute of Art.
It’s time to face the truth that higher education promises what it can’t deliver to most borrowers who didn’t come from wealthy backgrounds. That’s why so many in my generation are now questioning the meritsConsider the cost of college enrollment. This is a generational betrayal and it needs to be repaired.
The cancellation of former Corinthian students’ loans is a major victory. But it’s only the beginning. We must end all student debt and publically fund college so that everyone can afford it. The Department of Education cannot justify keeping ex-Art Institutes students in debt. Not to mention all the other people who were sold a bill of good at schools of all types. My fellow borrowers have just begun to speak up. This week’s announcement that more than half a million former Corinthian students will soon be debt free demonstrates that we can win. And we won’t give up because our futures depend on it.