Chapter Eleven

A Movement is Born

The fact that Borrower Defense to Repayment, or what we came to call “DTR,” existed offered a measure of vindication. Activists pushing for student loan cancellation had once been laughed at and scolded as fools and fantasists. Now, it was clear that Congress had foreseen that relief might be necessary in some cases. Seeing for-profit borrowers’ obligations wiped out via the DTR law would be a big win for our first debtors union. The Debt Collective could then point out that for-profit colleges only existed because higher education was a right that had been turned into a commercial product. In that case, we could say, weren’t all student loans unfair and unjust? Shouldn’t all student debt be cancelled? Winning relief for Corinthian students was key to making the argument.  

Since Corinthian had already been sued for fraud and its crimes were widely known, Debt Collective members and organizers began discussing how to pressure the Department to apply the DTR law as written. I hoped a pressure campaign would take shape quickly because reading and responding to messages from distressed debtors had once again become a major part of the Debt Collective’s work. Like those emails that had flooded our inbox after the launch of the Rolling Jubilee, each debtor had a story that was unique at the same time that it shared many similarities with all the others.

People drowning in student debt, both those who had attended for-profit and traditional schools, had enrolled because they wanted a better life and believed that education was a path to getting it. Yet, after attending college, many had found themselves struggling to reconcile what they had been told about the power of education to improve their lives with the grinding misery that they had encountered after graduation. One typical message came from Stan in Washington.

I am 70 years old. In 1992 I went back to school in Seattle, finished a BA degree that I'd  started in 1963, and then went on for a Master’s. For the first two years the payments were suspended while I got my practice off the ground. From that time on, I have payed $309.99 every month. A rough calculation indicates that I have paid $80,000 so far. I still owe $31,384.96 on what was originally $34,000 in loans.

Stan was not alone, and such messages reminded me that indebtedness was not just an individual affair. We heard from the parents, siblings, spouses, and friends of people overwhelmed by obligations they could never meet. An Ohio resident wrote to us about her friend, Adam, a former student at the University of Chicago.

The debt he owed was enormous and ominous. By the time I met Adam, his wages had already been garnished. He had decided that he could not work and eat at the same time. While on food stamps, he cooked humble potluck dinners in an artists’ warehouse which has since been condemned. Eventually, he started selling plasma at a local clinic to make rent. And then he started to lose hope. He hanged himself just weeks before I walked in my own commencement ceremonies. What am I supposed to do about this? How can I honor Adam?

My colleagues and I tried to respond to each message. We took turns crafting sympathetic replies, describing our vision of an organization for debtors and a world where no one had to go into debt for education. But, like a recurring nightmare, there were too many messages. We could not offer concrete help to the vast majority who were suffering.

In light of this dilemma, a colleague suggested that the Debt Collective include “mutual aid” as a pillar of the organization that we wanted to build. Mutual aid was a term to which I had been introduced during Occupy. A survival technique based on the idea that people had to take care of each other, mutual aid entailed individuals or small groups sharing their skills or other resources while also providing emotional support. As I understood it, the concept was associated with anarchism and had developed in reaction to the fact that government aid was feeble or non-existent. When Hurricane Sandy tore through New York City, for example, former occupiers framed the assistance that they provided to the storm’s victims as an act of mutual aid.

While I understood its short-term utility, the concept now struck me as bordering on the absurd given that we were living in the richest country in the history of the world. The anarchist ideal that poor people should save each other became a kind of running joke among a few members of our working group. The 2008 bank bailout provided all the necessary evidence that resources for everyday people were hardly scarce. The New York Times had recently explained that US dollars had been created “out of thin air” to shore up the financial system after the crisis. Indeed, by the end of the rescue program, $4.5 trillion had been conjured up in an act of money creation called “quantitative easing.” My colleagues and I joked that QE was “mutual aid for banks.”

While less and less convinced that mutual aid was good politics over the long term, we offered our own version. During a scheduled period of time each day, my colleagues and I made ourselves available to speak with individual debtors by phone in a service we called ‘office hours.’ The goal was to offer a sympathetic ear to borrowers, help them better understand their short-term options, and introduce them to the idea of debtor organizing. In the future, we hoped to expand the program by recruiting lawyers to answer debtors’ legal questions.

While talking one-on-one with borrowers was a growing part of our organizing work, written communication was the main way that we kept in touch with former students. Unable to speak to every debtor, we sent mass emails. The regular messages updated our growing membership base about their right to loan cancellation under the DTR law and about the Debt Collective’s commitment to helping them win relief.

In addition to our own form of mutual aid and written updates, we helped former students access services offered by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. A federal entity whose mission included advocating for people in debt, the CFPB gathered complaints from debtors and then took action against those creditors that were breaking the law. Along with several of my colleagues, I directed dozens of former for-profit college students to the CFPB and helped some of them file formal complaints. Through this process, I came to know a few of the CFPB staffers who, though they were clearly overworked, offered a lifeline to debtors. Compared to institutions like the Federal Reserve whose gears had been churning for years to make sure banks stayed solvent, the CFPB had few resources and little power. But it alerted me to the possibility that federal agencies could work in ordinary people’s favor. This was a new understanding inspired by my activism since Occupy that would have evoked the ire of many former denizens of Zuccotti Park.  

Though newly awakened to the possibility, the likelihood of federal help seemed remote. At that moment, the government was former for-profit college students’ main enemy. And the Department of Education was the object of borrowers’ justifiable scorn. The Debt Collective working group was constantly on the lookout for creative, low-cost ways to put pressure on the agency.

In October, Alexis Goldstein contacted us with an idea that fit the bill. I had met Goldstein during Occupy where she was part of a group called Occupy the Securities and Exchange Commission. Members of the group, many of whom had once worked on Wall Street, had co-authored a 300-page letter urging Congress to better regulate financial markets in the wake of the crisis. Now an analyst for a Washington DC policy shop, Goldstein told us that the Department of Education would soon hold a public hearing in Anaheim, California. She suggested that the Debt Collective bring former students to offer testimony about how they had been defrauded. Such an action would be confrontational without being illegal or dangerous, a good first step for the Corinthian Collective.

*****

We needed money to bring debtors to the hearing. There was no way that individual borrowers could fund the trip themselves. We knew that there were a few thousand dollars sitting in a crowdfunding account that had been created by Strike Debt. We reached out to some former colleagues to inquire about the money. Most agreed that the donations had been intended to support organizing. With resources in hand, Laura Hanna and I made plans to travel to Anaheim with several former Corinthian students. We purchased airline tickets and booked hotel rooms for Nathan Hornes, Dawn Lueck, Makenzie Vasquez, LaTonya Suggs, Chris Miller, Tasha Courtright and a few others. Hanna and I also invited two of our colleagues, Tran and McKelvey, to document the event in photos and to post about it on social media.

As the day of the hearing approached, we were pleased to learn that debtors would not be speaking only to Department staffers. Ted Mitchell, the Undersecretary of Education, would be present in the flesh.

Before arriving in Anaheim, Hanna and I conducted preparatory phone calls with each borrower who would be attending the hearing. Their audience would be federal officials, attorneys, policy makers, and members of the public. We encouraged each borrower to write statements which we then discussed with them. I worked closely with Latonya Suggs, a young woman from Cincinnati whom I had recruited to the Debt Collective via Facebook. A sign of her commitment to the fight, Suggs would be leaving her newborn baby at home to board the plane to California. She told me a few days before her flight that she was having trouble writing her statement. She had signed up for the loans, she said, and felt guilty about asking for relief. I encouraged Suggs to think of the power imbalance between students, the college, and the Department of Education. “Everest College promised you a good job, and you were lied to,” I said. “It was the Department’s job was to stop that from happening.” She agreed and promised to keep working on her statement.  

Once in Anaheim, Hanna and I collected former students from the airport and ferried them to a hotel. There, they read their statements to each other and made revisions late into the night, a scene of teaching and learning that would have been impossible to re-create in any classroom. In a hotel ballroom the next morning, November 4th, our troupe of activists arrived just as officials from the Department of Education were gathering on a small stage at the front of the room. A lectern was set up a few feet away. From their seats in the audience, nine members of the Corinthian Collective waited nervously for their names to be called.

One of the first to speak was Dawn Lueck, a former for-profit college student who had also worked as a manager at Corinthian. Drawing from her insider knowledge of the school’s accounting practices, Lueck explained that Corinthian built a system designed to enroll students as quickly as possible. “What I mostly recall,” she said, “was an environment with a lot of pressure. Employee performance measures were all tied into getting the enrollments up and into getting the students through financial aid so that schools could profit.” Lueck also spoke openly and movingly about how much she regretted encouraging students to sign up for loans. “It was all numbers and goals and percentages,” she said. “This corporate structure encouraged employees to disassociate from the fact that those numbers represented people’s lives.”

Chris Miller next rose to speak. From Washington state, Miller was an Iraq War veteran who had shown up to the hearing with army medals draped across his chest. From the lectern, Miller described how Corinthian College had lied about the job that would be available to him after graduation. He said that he was demanding debt cancellation on behalf of himself, fellow soldiers and on behalf of his brother, his sister, and his brother-in-law who had all attended the school. “I’m a person who prides himself on integrity and honor,” he concluded.

But the only thing that I have received since graduating from Corinthian is consistent harassment from debt collectors. They have also called the person who co-signed my loans, my 90-year-old grandfather, who is a World War II veteran. The point I’m trying to make is that Corinthian Colleges acted dishonorably and lacked integrity and showed no moral conscience for their actions. 

Though Miller’s GI Bill, his only chance at being able to afford college, had been taken by a predatory school which had also loaded him up with debt, Miller was more incensed at the fact that he had been lied to by an unscrupulous company that did not share his values.

When her name was called, Suggs strolled confidently to the podium wearing her Everest College graduation cap with its bright red tassel. “When I started Everest University, I was really excited because I felt that all my dreams were going to come true,” her statement began.  

Everest promised me career hunting skills and a quality education. I really believed that they would hold up their end of the bargain. Well, when it came time for graduation, I noticed that I had taken out all these loans. I was also sad and hurt that the school withheld all of my stipend check my last year in school and then told me I owed them money. Since graduation, I have not heard from the school or from career services and, when I contacted them, they suggested jobs that pay $8.00 to $9.00 an hour as a security officer. I took out $40,000 dollars in loans for a Criminal Justice degree that most employers don’t even recognize. I had to take a job as a housekeeper. All I wanted for myself is to work in the courts as a bailiff or as a correctional officer. I wanted to be able to live that dream but, now that I have all these loans and no job in my field, I am completely lost and in debt. The only way to solve this is for you to forgive my loan so I can start over with a college that will live up to its name.

Suggs had enrolled in school to prepare to work in the court system, a career that Corinthian had specifically marketed to working-class women like her. I was thrilled to see that her statement hinted at none of the guilt that she had expressed days earlier. Indeed, after completing her speech, Suggs handed her graduation cap to Ted Mitchell in a gesture of defiance. “You can have this cap back,” she said. “I don’t even want it.”

Listening to borrowers speak at the hearing, I was struck by differences in language and rhetoric. Former students usually relied on personal experience to talk about what had happened to them, often explaining how individual employees at the school had lied to them in particular ways. By contrast, the Debt Collective working group was more comfortable using specialized terminology in its internal discussions of the crisis of mass indebtedness. Whereas Lueck, Miller, and Suggs, for example, all described being duped by craven, immoral hustlers, organizers would have been more likely to say that the fraud perpetuated at Corinthian schools was a result of higher education being financialized after decades of austerity.

It occurred to me that day that both ways of communicating were essential and complementary. Imagining debtors unions in the abstract would have little effect if that work wasn’t grounded in borrowers’ concrete experiences and desires. At the same time, simply narrating Corinthian’s bait and switch operation, as horrific as it was, would only be minimally effective as a critique of the economy that had produced for-profit schools. By bringing together people who understood the issue from various angles, and by combining narrative and analysis, I hoped that the Debt Collective was on the right track.   

By the end of the hearing, former Corinthian students had all told gripping stories of being lied to, scammed, and harassed. They had a simple, clear demand: cancel our debt. Department officials thanked them for their testimonies. As we rose to leave, Ted Mitchell came down from the stage and approached us. He shook hands with each borrower, looked them in the eye, and promised to do all he could to help. It seemed to me that the debtors were impressed by the gesture. They had railed against the Undersecretary and his agency all day, and he had responded with something like gratitude.

I was not impressed. I thought I recognized Mitchell’s graciousness as an upper-class speech, an aristocratic politeness that was a force of habit for people like him. Not everyone saw it that way. As we left the ballroom, a news crew that had been covering the hearing followed us out. A reporter asked Suggs whether she thought her message had been received. “Do you think the Department of Education will cancel your debt?” Suggs responded. “Yes, I do,” she said. “They are going to help us.” It would take much more, I thought, to win more than verbal niceties from government officials who had mastered the art of sounding like they cared.

Regardless of whose impression would turn out to be correct, it had been a landmark day for debtor organizing. A group of former students had spoken out on behalf of themselves as well as for tens of thousands of others in their situation. And a federal official had promised to take action. The feeling of accomplishment was sweet and motivating. That evening, we drove to an Everest College campus in downtown Los Angeles. Dawn, Nathan, Makenzie, Tasha, Chris and the others went inside. I followed them through the halls as they stopped to speak to currently enrolled students. “This school is a scam!” they called out, urging everyone they crossed not to take out any more loans. “We’re building a movement to take Corinthian down! The Department of Education must cancel our debt!” The former students collected the names and phone numbers of everyone who said they wanted to join the Corinthian Collective. Tran took photos of the campus protest, including several striking portraits of borrowers, all dressed in black and red, looking confident and determined in the shadow of their former college. Months earlier, the Debt Collective had been a few former occupiers talking to each other about the need for a new kind of union for the age of financialization. That night, as campus security guards directed our disruptive band of activists towards the exits, I had the feeling that we had entered new territory.

Chapter Twelve