Canceling Corinthian loans is just the start of abolishing student debt
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 class action backed by a syndicate of debtors called Debt Collective.
And while all of us in this movement welcome the news about Corinthian Colleges – a for-profit chain of schools that closed seven years ago after lying and defrauding borrowers – we also know that this Victory was just the beginning of what must happen to abolish the immoral student debt that continues to plague millions of people across the country.
The road to the Biden administration’s recent debt cancellation was paved by former Corinthian Colleges students who, with the help of the Debt Collective, launched a debt strike in 2015. Borrowers demanded a relief from the Ministry of Education. I joined the campaign soon after because I recognized the strikers’ story as my own.
My for-profit college scam story begins in 2009 after I graduated from high school. Like most working-class people, I had grown up thinking that borrowing money for school was a safe and necessary investment to get ahead. But since neither of my parents had attended college, I didn’t know much about the enrollment process.
During my senior year of high school, I received a postcard from the New England Institute of Art, which promised careers in media, including film, television, and games. I have always been passionate about media arts. But my immigrant parents feared 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% and 89.5% of its graduates had found employment in their chosen fields, even though ( like other for-profits) they counted any job in their numbers, including fast food and retail – even my wayward parents felt safe sending me to school. The school bombarded us with communications that the education would be “affordable”.
I didn’t know what a “for-profit” school was when I started. It never occurred to me that a school that advertised on billboards, on public transport, on television and online could be lying. If you had told me that a college accredited by the Ministry of Education could get away with enriching investors by putting students in debt, I would have said that you were delusional. Yet that is exactly what is happening. In fact, schools like mine are still open and cheating students even though the Ministry of Education has all the power to shut them down.
Shortly after signing up, I began to suspect something was wrong. The students I knew graduated. But the careers they were promised were not there for them. The few media industry professionals I was able to meet at school explained why art institute graduates could not be hired in the field. They said our education was not up to par. It was humiliating. But I couldn’t do anything with what I knew.
What’s even more disturbing is that I didn’t realize I was taking out loans for the first three years. School officials had assured me that the Pell Grants would cover my exorbitant tuition. They asked me to sign documents that I did not understand. They said it was necessary for me to continue my studies and used a lot of language that I did not understand. They acted like I had to understand everything they said, and I was afraid I looked “stupid,” so I signed. In my senior year, I agreed to take out a loan because my scholarships were exhausted. As I got closer to graduation, the costs kept rising. When I saw the loan statement, I realized that the school had signed me up for loans for years without my knowledge.
In August 2013, feeling disgusted and ashamed, I quit school. Disgruntled former students were gathering online to vent their frustrations, so I knew I was not alone. I had also taken notes of my experiences and collected as many documents from school as possible. In May 2015, I organized a Facebook group where we could share our stories. Soon the group filled up with former students from art institute campuses across the country. It was cathartic and revealing. But it also exposed many of us to more cruelty. Some former students and professors have joined the group. They called us lazy and blamed us for not being good enough.
Eventually our group grew so large that our complaints were too loud to ignore. We became visible to more victims of for-profit college fraud. This led us to the Debt Collective as well as a team of attorneys from Harvard’s Project on Predatory Student Lending, who reviewed all of the documents we had gathered to prove the school’s wrongdoing and created a letter of legal claim on our behalf, which ultimately led to the filing of a formal complaint. I learned that other for-profit colleges were also engaging in the same predatory tactics. My co-debtors and I felt galvanized and motivated to demand the cancellation of our loans.
Around this time, I also learned that the New England Institute of Art’s actual placement rate for my program was 22%, according to a now-deleted page on its own website that I captured in a screenshot . The figures they announced that convinced me and my parents to enroll in the school were pure lies.
Former for-profit students like me have been fighting for years. From rallies in New Orleans to demonstrations in Washington, DC, we have kept the pressure on the federal government through three presidential administrations. In the process, we stopped viewing debt as an individual burden. The fundamental problems are predatory lending, deceptive marketing practices and the deliberate exploitation of students for profit. We also know that for-profit colleges are not “bad apples” in an otherwise fair higher education system. Schools like art institutes only exist because there is a market for them and because they cater to some students and not others. The rich and well-connected don’t send their own children to places like the New England Institute of Art.
It’s time to face the truth that higher education promises what it cannot deliver to most borrowers who are not from affluent backgrounds. This is why so many of my generation question the merits of going to college given the cost. It is a generational betrayal that demands redress.
The cancellation of the loans of former Corinthian students is a great victory. But this is only the beginning. Ultimately, we must abolish all student debt, for everyone, and publicly fund college education and make it free for everyone. There is no way the Department of Education system can justify keeping former students of art institutes in debt, let alone all the other people who have been sold into schools of all kinds. Borrowers like me are just beginning to speak up. This week’s announcement that over half a million former Corinthian students will soon be debt free shows that we can win. And we won’t give up because our future depends on it.