Chapter Fifteen

An Historic Meeting in Washington

Media coverage of the strike forced elected officials at the local and federal levels to acknowledge the demands being made by former Corinthian students. By the end of that spring, eleven states Attorneys General, thirteen US Senators, and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus had made statements in support of the strikers. Hillary Clinton, who had recently launched her second campaign for the Presidency, tweeted her support. “No one should be in debt to a college that defrauded them,” she posted, “forgiving students is the right decision.” With much of the mainstream press, Congressional democrats, and a top presidential candidate aligned with former Corinthian students, the Department of Education was under pressure to act. In March, the Debt Collective received an invitation to Washington. Federal officials wanted to meet in person with borrowers.

Since the Debt Collective had no money, it wasn’t clear at first that we would be able to attend the meeting. At the last moment, we received a grant from the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA, an entity whose mission included offering direct financial support to social justice organizations and activists. With that money, the Debt Collective was able to cover travel costs for former students and organizers who wanted to go to Washington. Volunteers were still hard at work recruiting strikers and, once in the nation’s capital, we hoped to announce that the strike had grown to include 100 former students. By asserting that it was aiding and abetting predatory behavior by schools that it was supposed to be regulating, we had succeeded in putting the Department of Education on the defensive. The best way to advance our campaign at this new stage, we reasoned, was to show that the movement was growing.

The meeting brought together old friends as well as new members of the Debt Collective. Diverse in age, race, and from different regions of the country, strikers had at least two things in common: they were poor and, after attending Corinthian College, they were in student debt. In addition to veteran strikers like Latonya Suggs, Ann Bowers, and Makenzie Vasquez, there were new faces. One of them was Pam Hunt. A single mother from Connecticut, Hunt had earned an M.A. degree at Corinthian College.

Hunt was joined by Jessica King, a mother of two from Virginia who had attended Corinthian in the hope of becoming a Physician’s Assistant. By the time she joined the campaign, King was working as a bartender and described the prospect of attending college as a “damned if we do and damned if we don’t” situation. “You pull yourself up by your bootstraps” she explained in an email, “and it’s like being victimized again.”

Another new striker was Dawn Thompson who had enrolled in Corinthian’s online Business Administration program. From Illinois, Thompson was on the hook for more than $170,000 in loans. She was angry and connected her experience of indebtedness with what she described as the government’s pro-business policies. “I'm sick of this corrupt government, sick of everything being for big businesses and not for the people,” she wrote on Facebook. Thompson said she wanted to tell Department of Education officials what she thought of them to their faces. We were happy to oblige.

Comments made by King and Thompson highlighted for me the significance of the Washington meeting. Officials would be sitting across the table from scammed borrowers demanding relief from a federal regulator. In Anaheim, Undersecretary Ted Mitchell and his staff got a taste of former Corinthian students’ anger. This time, borrowers would make their demands official. Strikers would also be in the room with representatives from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as well as from the Department of the Treasury. Staffers from the offices of nine states Attorneys General would join by conference call.

With so many officials in positions of authority participating in an historic conversation between student debtors and the federal government, the stakes were high. The evening before the meeting took place, strikers and organizers gathered in our hotel to prepare. As some had done in Anaheim five months earlier, borrowers wrote statements and practiced delivering them. After receiving feedback from organizers and from fellow strikers, they revised and practiced their delivery again. We stayed up late discussing how best to make the case that students who had been scammed deserved relief. The group agreed to emphasize that borrowers’ frustration and fury, as well as the number of people on strike, would grow until justice was done.

On a balmy day in late March, fifteen strikers and five organizers were ushered into a conference room at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Officials and staffers greeted us politely and took their seats. One difference between the two groups was immediately obvious. Many of the former students who came to Washington were black and brown people dressed in casual attire. The professional attendees, who were mostly white, wore tailored suits, expensive shoes, and carried briefcases. When the Undersecretary arrived, he seemed delighted to be there. Mitchell shook hands with everyone and greeted those he had already met like old friends.  

As the meeting got underway, borrowers introduced themselves and told their stories, often abandoning prepared statements as they got caught up in the moment. Tasha Courtright spoke about having to choose between being a good mother and paying her student loans. “I can’t buy Christmas presents. I can’t take my kids on vacation. They ask me for things, and I have to say that I don’t have money.” The mood turned even darker as Ann Bowers described having to choose between making loan payments and paying her rent. “If you don’t cancel this debt, I guess I’ll just take my dog and go live in a box on the street,” she said.

As with clothing, striking differences in language use and modes of expression were apparent from the moment borrowers began speaking. Former students, whose testimonies were almost always rooted in their personal experiences, often raised their voices, cursed, or cracked jokes. Some of the professionals seemed to find such displays amusing, though they tried not to show it. Others squirmed uncomfortably in their chairs. During her statement, Natasha Hornes, her long black hair streaked in purple and pink, raised her voice and pounded on the table. “You have the authority to cancel our debt,” she cried. “Why haven’t you done it yet?” I wondered if anyone had ever pounded on that table like that before.

Officials from the various government agencies mostly listened. When they did speak, they asked questions or commented sympathetically in response to something a striker had said. No professional told a personal story, except once. Midway through the meeting, Mitchell remarked that he had been moved by Hornes’ testimony in Anaheim. “I dream about you sometimes, Nathan” he admitted. Without missing a beat, Hornes replied, “join the club.” The room erupted in laughter. Not even the stone-faced attorneys who were sitting on either side of Mitchell could stifle a chuckle. I wondered if anyone had ever laughed like that in that room before.

An hour after it began, the meeting ended. Department officials had taken notes and nodded at appropriate moments. Mitchell thanked the Debt Collective for bringing the Defense to Repayment law to his attention and said that, with his staff, he would review each borrower’s application and consider their demands. Just before the gathering adjourned, Luke Herrine had an announcement to make. He pulled a large red box out from under his chair and dropped it on the table. “We now represent the Corinthian 100,” he said. Days earlier, volunteers had succeeded in recruiting dozens of new strikers. “In addition to 100 people now on strike,” Herrine continued, “257 borrowers have filed Defense to Repayment via the Debt Collective’s online form. The applications are in this box.” Mitchell assured us that the Department would be in touch within 30 days. Someone snapped a photograph of the Undersecretary holding the box of DTR claims and smiling awkwardly. The photo claimed a central spot on the Debt Collective’s website for a long time afterwards.  

*****

In the wake of their face-off with Department officials, the strikers received more press attention and support from progressives and from liberal media outlets. The New York Times published two articles about the strike that spring. In the first, the editorial board shined a spotlight on the Department’s statutory power to cancel loans. “The idea of forgiving loans altogether gained traction when a group of former Corinthian students refused to repay their loans,” the op-ed began.

The group, part of an organization called the Debt Collective, noted that the          Department of Education had broad authority to forgive debt in cases where schools had committed wrongdoing. . . .Over the last 20 years, the Department has received only a handful of requests from borrowers seeking to escape repayment on grounds of wrongdoing by schools. But the evidence shows that such a system is needed and that relief is long overdue.

Crediting the Debt Collective’s strike campaign with forcing the issue, the board argued that the federal government should quickly create a system for cancelling federal student loans.

In the second article, Tamar Lewin published “For-Profit Colleges Face a Loan Revolt by Thousands Claiming Trickery” in which she noted that the Debt Collective’s campaign was growing. The reporter quoted Herrine who argued that the Department of Education had ceded its regulatory role to serve as a debt collector. “The Department first makes the loans that let students go to these fraudulent colleges,” he said, “and then when students can’t pay, the Department goes after them.”

Undersecretary Mitchell was also quoted in the article. He told Lewin that his agency was focused on “student welfare.” But the reporter helped make our case that the government cared more about protecting for-profit schools than in seeing justice done. “As the Corinthian saga illustrates,” she wrote, “it can be hard to sort out which interests the Department considers paramount.” I was giddy with the thought that democrats in the Obama administration were enduring what must have been one of their worst nightmares: being called out twice by the paper of record. We were a long way from Occupy Wall Street.

The fight being waged by Corinthian borrowers was also covered on national television. Two days after the meeting in Washington, the CBS News Morning Show devoted a segment to the strike. “The so-called Corinthian 100 are now refusing to pay back their student loans,” the journalist Jill Schlesinger reported, noting that borrowers were “relying on a little-known part of the Higher Education Act which says that, if there is fraud, students can discharge the debt.” While Schlesinger spoke, images from the Debt Collective’s website and profile photos of the strikers flashed across the screen. The journalist also put the conflict between former students and the federal government in context, informing viewers that companies like Corinthian could declare bankruptcy to get out of their own obligations while federal student loan holders were stuck with their debts for life.

The fact that student debt was a life sentence prompted some observers to note that former students’ demand had implications beyond for-profit colleges and even higher education. Reverend Michael Ellick, a minister and well-known progressive faith leader, saw the Debt Collective’s campaign as a call for a moral reckoning in a world of suffering and injustice. He started a petition in support of the strike that was ultimately signed by more than 2,000 people. “As people of faith,” the petition read,

our tradition of jubilee reminds us never to accept an economy that isn’t working for the betterment of everyone within their society. The Biblical call to debt forgiveness is more than just an economic safeguard, it is a sacred teaching–a reminder of how human economies drift toward inequity and injustice and must be routinely checked in the service of all God's children.

The language of jubilee had been part of the Debt Collective’s linguistic repertoire for years. But for those strikers who were religious, the term resonated differently. Learning that faith leaders across the country were on their side was a source of pride and another shot of confidence.

Progressives were not the only partisans cheering on Corinthian borrowers. Some on the right side of the political spectrum expressed their support. In April, the MSNBC journalist, Melissa Harris Perry, featured an interview via satellite with LaTonya Suggs. During the segment, Harris, a liberal, noted that the Obama administration was pushing legislation to limit predatory behavior by payday lenders. “If we are going to take that kind of stance against payday lenders, then why not against for-profit colleges?” she asked. One of Perry’s guests was Joe Watkins who worked as a Republican strategist. He agreed with Perry’s assessment and referred to Suggs and the other strikers as “courageous” people who were “standing up for their rights.” Students had been taken in by a “scam business,” Watkins said, and deserved to be made whole.

While some commentators understood that payday lenders and for-profit schools had much in common as predatory businesses, for others the strike raised critical questions about how US colleges were being funded. Vimal Patel, a reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote to the Debt Collective with a request. “I'm writing a story about student debt,” he explained. “I want to explore whether this [strike] effort, which seems to for now be relegated to the for-profit sector, has broader implications.” As we had hoped, the campaign to win relief for former Corinthian students was encouraging some to ask what the existence of expensive, low-quality, for-profit schools had to say about higher education in general.

All around us, new ways of talking about education were opening up, sometimes in ways that left me breathless. That fall, Tressie Cottom, who would later publish a highly regarded book on the for-profit college industry, wrote “Why Free College is Necessary.” In the essay, the scholar swept away decades of mythology about college as a path to upward mobility–the ostensible purpose for its cost. Cottom asserted that, by itself, a diploma could not put money in people’s pockets. “I do not care if free college won’t solve inequality,” she wrote.

As an isolated policy, I know that it won’t. . . Despite these problems, today’s debate about free college tuition does something extremely valuable. It reintroduces the concept of public good to higher education discourse—a concept that fifty years of individuation, efficiency fetishes, and a rightward drift in politics have nearly        pummeled out of higher education altogether. 

Cottom acknowledged the limits of free college as a policy to address economic and racial inequality–an assessment with which I wholeheartedly agreed. But she also celebrated the current debate–a debate that the Debt Collective had helped to spark–as having “reintroduce[ed] the concept” of public goods to mainstream discourse. Since one of our goals was changing the narrative, I could not have asked for a better outcome for the Corinthian campaign.

Back in the world of government agencies and political maneuvering, the question of debt relief for former Corinthian students still loomed. A few days after strikers left Washington, Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, discussed their demands in a television interview with the journalist Chris Hayes. He said that for-profit schools had been “bad actors for far too long [and that] they were allowed to just do what they wanted.” He assured Hayes that his agency was reviewing its options with regard to debt relief. In a later interview, the Secretary emphasized that cracking down on for profits would ensure that higher education could continue to serve as a path to the middle class. “Students everywhere,” he said, “deserve and need the opportunity to make their lives better through education and to climb the economic ladder.”

I was disappointed but not surprised to hear Duncan reinforcing the idea that the purpose of college was not human flourishing or a way to satisfy one’s curiosity about the world but access to a higher income. At the same time, his insistence that higher education was key to increased earnings was in some ways a positive sign. He recognized that our campaign, narrowly focused as it was on Corinthian College, posed a challenge to the idea that education was a consumer product that individuals should pay for out of pocket. Regardless of any steps his agency planned to take to address Corinthian borrowers’ demands, it was the myth of education as a social equalizer that the Secretary of Education had stepped up to defend.  

*****

The Debt Collective’s campaign was not just opening up new ways of talking while forcing officials to defend debunked mythologies. It had also opened the floodgates. As news of the Corinthian strike broke, former students from other for-profit colleges began reaching out in droves. My colleagues and I received messages from people who had attended ITT Technical Institute, a chain of vocational schools that offered degrees in business and computing, as well as from borrowers who had enrolled in the Art Institutes, schools for those who wanted to work in creative fields like photography and design. Their stories of being lied to and preyed upon were nearly identical to those I had already heard. One of the first things we advised former ITT Tech and AI students to do was file Defense to Repayment. As a result, within a few months, the number of borrowers disputing the legality of their loans had climbed into the thousands.

As people from multiple schools joined the Debt Collective’s online networks in large numbers, the Department of Education made a stunning announcement: the agency was finally cutting off federal funding to Corinthian College. Because it had violated regulations in the areas of recruitment and job placement, the school would no longer be eligible for federal student loans. The decision was devastating to the company’s bottom line. It turned out that a for-profit college that had promised good jobs and higher wages to its graduates could not itself stay afloat absent buckets of public money. Dozens of campuses shuttered within days. Though it was still unclear if or when former students would see loan relief, Corinthian immediately declared bankruptcy to get out from under its own debts. No one who had been personally involved in the scam, including company CEO Jack Massimino, faced any legal consequences. Shareholders, who had earned big profits from two decades of fraud, were also untouchable.

The closure of Corinthian prompted another round of media stories about the rise and fall of the multi-billion-dollar chain and about what the school’s demise meant for for-profit higher education. Though it had finally shut down one scam college, the Department was losing the battle of public opinion. Several articles on the closure faulted the government’s delayed response while quoting debt strikers on the subject of the school’s crimes. By that point, the full tale of Corinthian’s ignominious collapse could not be told without referencing the former students who had helped to bring the institution down.

Past excuses for government inaction were also wearing thin. It was no longer possible to suggest that student debt could not be cancelled. The Defense to Repayment law showed that fraudulent federal loans could be easily erased. It was also not credible to ask whether Corinthian had really defrauded students to a degree that merited debt relief. The government was at that moment shutting down schools for breaking the law. To what offensive strategy would our opponents turn next?

One article on the closures previewed our opposition’s newest line of attack. Danielle Douglas-Gabriel published “A Revolt is Growing as More People Refuse to Pay Back Student Loans” in the Washington Post. In it, she assessed the likelihood that former Corinthian students would see relief. “Granting discharges,” she wrote, “could mean the loss of billions of dollars in taxpayer money and set a precedent for future requests for loan forgiveness.” The reporter had certainly been given this “billions of dollars” figure by officials in the Department, a rehash of the same old talking point that canceling loans would be too expensive. Only the mention of “taxpayer money” was new. From that point on, officials would repeatedly assert that making former students whole would be harmful to taxpayers who would have to foot the bill.

What my colleagues and I came to call the “taxpayer narrative” had been unleashed. The Department’s devotion to the strategy was so deep that the agency brought on a new official, the ridiculously named “Borrower Defense Special Master,” to review debt relief applications. In its press release announcing the hire, the Department said the person would be responsible for “protecting taxpayers” in the loan cancellation process. Notably, former students themselves were never included in this group of upstanding citizens who paid taxes.

The Special Master announcement prompted some of my colleagues and I to note that the acronym BDSM also stood for Bondage, Domination, Sadism, and Masochism–a label that seemed to portend the pain to come. But the taxpayer narrative was more than just an offensive against debt strikers; it was an argument that could be marshalled against the Debt Collective’s larger claim that all student debt should be cancelled and public colleges made free. After all, as Douglas-Gabriel had noted in her article, the government’s primary fear was setting a precedent. If the agency cancelled Corinthian borrowers’ debts, who else would come knocking? Former ITT Tech and Art Institutes students were already lining up at the gates with claims that had just as much merit as those being made by former Corinthian students.

The taxpayer narrative had a tremendous rhetorical power. In the coming years, the Debt Collective would be pressed again and again to explain how our demands could be met without raising the deficit or harming taxpayers. We suspected the whole framework was false. Taxes never seemed to go up to pay for overseas wars. And it was widely known that federal grants helped to fund local police departments, a source of funding that also never ran dry.

I was reminded of this fact in April when a 50-year-old black man named Walter Scott was shot to death by a white police officer in North Carolina. A video showed Scott running away when the cop opened fire, hitting him in the back. Scott collapsed and died at the scene. The video went viral, protesters descended on North Charleston, and the cop was charged with murder.

A few evenings later, I was in a corner store in my Brooklyn neighborhood when I overheard a young, black man talking about Scott’s killing to the guy behind the counter. “When it comes to the police,” he said, “I’m not afraid of the gun. I’m afraid of the badge.” I reflected on that comment for a long time afterwards, trying to better understand what it meant, and thinking about all the taxpayer money that had been spent to assure that the man’s feeling was general.    

Chapter Sixteen