Chapter Nineteen

Building a Platform and Suing Betsy DeVos

The Debt Collective had hit a wall, one that would be difficult to scale anytime soon. The Obama administration had plunged former for-profit college students deeper into the abyss by delaying relief until it was too late. On organizing phone calls and on social media, I and my fellow organizers told debtors that they should plan for a long, drawn-out fight, one that would likely last through the next four years and beyond. Many borrowers did not need to be informed of this reality. They were well aware that Trump was not the working-class champion that he had claimed to be on the campaign trail. Others insisted that Trump would do the right thing and cancel their debts. They had voted for him for that reason. I could not blame anyone for hoping that, where the Democrats had failed them, the Republicans would do better.

By 2019, the reality that the GOP was not going to erase the debt became undeniable. By then the president himself had been accused of profiting from a scam for-profit college. Trump University had settled out of court with former students who were duped into spending thousands to enroll in worthless get-rich-quick schemes stamped with the president’s name. As for former Corinthian, ITT Tech, and Art Institutes students, Secretary DeVos stood firm. In April of that year, the New York Times reported that 150,000 people had applied for debt cancellation up to that point, double the number than during the previous administration. The Department ignored them. Perhaps one reason was that the Secretary herself had invested in collection companies that went after borrowers in default. With their credit scores trashed and with hope for relief fading, many debtors resigned themselves to wage garnishment and tax refund seizures for loans that should have been erased long before.

The Debt Collective had to adapt to new circumstances. During the first two years of the Trump administration, we found ourselves spending more time assisting individual debtors. Everyone who had filed Defense to Repayment was supposed to be placed in a stopped payment status until a decision was made on their claim. But in many cases the government was continuing to collect in violation of the law. Borrowers began reaching out for help. My colleagues and I tried to stop such collections, an effort that required a deep dive into numerous unique cases. Where did the debtor attend school? When did she file DTR? Had collections ever stopped and, if so, when did they resume? Who was servicing the loans? With this information in hand, we told borrowers how to contact their servicer and coached them on what to say when they reached someone by phone.

Servicers were rarely eager to place a debtor in a stopped payment status and frequently claimed ignorance of the law. Multiple phone calls were often required to get the outcome we wanted. This kind of advocacy work felt endless. There were almost certainly thousands of people who needed this service. As individual’s needs loomed and as our brains filled with minutiae, the time and energy required to develop an organization became harder to come by. We had envisioned an entity through which debtors could build collective power and strike back at their creditors as a bloc. Helping individuals, though in some ways essential, was an obstacle on the path to our ultimate goal.

Nevertheless, several of my colleagues dedicated themselves to service provision. With his talent for keeping track of details, Thomas Gokey led the Debt Collective’s effort to stop collections. One of the borrowers with whom he worked closely was Jessica Madison. An original member of the Corinthian Fifteen, Madison had received notice in January of 2017, just before President Obama left office, that her loans had been approved for discharge by the Special Master. At the time, we celebrated this as a major victory, one offered to precious few former students. But her debts were never actually cancelled. As a result, Trump’s Department of Education was continuing to garnish her wages. Each week DeVos and company assured that Madison took home less income than she had earned. She and her wife both worked low-wage jobs and could hardly afford to have a portion of their household earnings seized by the government every week. What could the Debt Collective do in response?

Hoping that a media spotlight might force the Secretary to take action, we pressed reporters to cover the issue. An article in Marketwatch chronicled Madison’s case. The reporter described how wage garnishments had made her precarious economic situation even worse. “This debt has put me in a deep hole that is taking long to crawl out of,” Madison said, describing how she was having trouble paying her electric bill during the sweltering Florida summer. The Washington Post also told the story of how the Department of Education was seizing money from a former Corinthian student whose loans had been slated for cancellation by the previous administration. The reporter noted that Madison was not alone. DeVos was sitting on tens of thousands of relief applications some of which she had been ignoring for two years.

Madison’s garnishment was finally halted a few weeks after these stories appeared. (In a final act of belligerence, though, the government refused to refund the wage seizures that had already taken place, totaling almost $13,000.) Though media shaming had worked in Madison’s case, the incident was a glaring example of our limitations and lack of capacity. Even if my colleagues and I spent all of our time on the righteous battle to stop collections, we would hardly make a dent in the problem. Trying to convince reporters to cover specific instances of illegal garnishment seemed similarly quixotic. Given DeVos’s hostility to borrowers, shining a spotlight on the Department’s bad behavior was likely to have diminishing returns. With Congress then in Republican hands and with Democrats so unreliable on the issue, where did that leave us?

*****

Between 2017 and 2019, I focused on two tactics that I hoped would get us out of the bind. The first was building our online platform. I was enthusiastic because the platform would be a critical feature of a national debtors union. I took on the job of coordinating the project and reached out to various tech firms to look for engineers. Most of this footwork came to nothing, as coders expected to earn more than we could afford to pay. Finally, in early 2018, I was able to put together a team to be led by Orlando Del Aguila. I also brought on two assistant developers. Amidst the despair over languishing Defense to Repayment claims, it felt like the Debt Collective was embarking on a promising path.

Creating an organization required, as always, finding the right combination of words and images to explain what the Debt Collective was and why people should join it. To that end, our working group designed the platform to house at least eight “collectives” for people burdened with various debts, from student loans and court fines and fees to auto loans and medical bills. We knew that it would be easier for people with the same kind of loan to relate to each other–just as medical debtors had donated to the Rolling Jubilee to help others in their situation and just as former for-profit college students from different schools had ultimately found common cause.

Another reason for collectives separated by debt type was that stopping collections often required employing tactics suited to specific kinds of loans. Filing a Defense to Repayment application, for example, was a tactic available only to student debtors. Via the “collectives” model, borrowers could access only those services and features that were made for them. 

Another major platform feature was a series of debt dispute tools inspired by our Defense to Repayment application. As we had known since the Rolling Jubilee days, various consumer debts were bought and sold in bundles, often by unscrupulous buyers who did not have all of the documents required to legally collect on the loans. Our automated dispute tools suite would provide debtors with a simple way to send pre-written letters demanding that collectors produce documentation of the debt. If lenders could not provide such documentation, they could not legally continue to collect. This strategy had already proven successful during a trial run that we had conducted. Several Debt Collective members had been freed from a variety of consumer debts as a result of using our tools.

In addition to services for individuals, the Debt Collective platform needed to present mass indebtedness as a crisis caused by an economic system in which many of the goods and services that people needed to survive and thrive were only available on private markets. As with the original Debt Collective website, which we had created more than three years earlier, our working group debated how to make the case for public spending on public goods. Laura Hanna suggested that we integrate a media page called “The Power Report.” There, organizers and members could post articles and other media about the root causes of their financial problems as well as potential solutions. For example, debtors of all kinds would be able to read about and discuss universal health care as a solution for medical debt. Those with fines and fees (as well as those without) would be invited into conversations about how de-industrialized cities and towns were financing their court systems on the backs of the poor. The publication might even report on debtors’ struggles in other parts of the world. While not a perfect way to communicate our larger vision, The Power Report would make analyses of the debt system available to Debt Collective members who would then be invited to discuss and debate the issues with others. I hoped this online space could help us continue the conversation on the economy and on the history of organizing that we had started in New Orleans.

Discussion and debate would take place on a part of the platform that we called a “Debtor Community.” This would be a series of forums where borrowers could meet each other, offer advice, and plan campaigns together. I was still haunted by the memory of the thousands of emails from distressed debtors that we had received during the Rolling Jubilee, not to mention messages from former for-profit college students who had contacted us during the early days of the Corinthian campaign. These experiences gave me insight into how the Debtor Community should function. Back then, we had not been able to respond to every debtor or offer them a way to participate beyond making a donation or filling out a Defense to Repayment form. Former Corinthian students could not even join the strike without help from an organizer. Our new community, by contrast, would be easy to join. Once enrolled, members would be able to access services as well as learn about and participate in ongoing campaigns, including the debt strikes that we hoped would become common.

A place where debtors of all kinds could gather to share information, make plans, and learn, the platform was designed to illustrate how borrowers were connected to each other. We were all in debt because wages were low, public services had been cut, and more of us were being forced to pay out of pocket for goods and services that should be free. But demonstrating similarities wasn’t our only goal. The platform also had to communicate that debtors were not, in fact, all in the same boat. For-profit colleges had preyed on single mothers and predatory mortgage lenders had targeted black borrowers prior to the 2008 financial crisis. The platform had to highlight such disparities to engender a deeper understanding of the system against which we were all fighting. In other words, while almost everyone was in debt (a fact which justified the creation of a debtors union in the first place), people were affected in various ways to the point where being indebted together was a sign of difference as much as it was a description of a common condition. The community forums would frame indebtedness as our common struggle. At the same time, through group discussion and educational initiatives, we hoped to highlight why and how certain groups were impacted more than others.

*****

As the first lines of platform code were being written by Del Aguila and his team, the Debt Collective working group turned to the second of the two tactics that we focused on during the early years of the Trump administration. One thing that had become clear over the previous seven years was that winning material gains for debtors required taking on creditors with weapons that could actually do them harm. To that end, we began assisting attorneys at Harvard’s Clinic on Predatory Student Lending to file lawsuits against the Department of Education. Run by Toby Merrill and Eileen Connor, the Clinic’s mission included helping low-income people with issues related to debt and bankruptcy.

The Debt Collective’s relationship with the Harvard clinic and with Merrill and Connor was longstanding. Back in 2015, Connor had helped Herrine and I put together the first Defense to Repayment form–the one that went on to be used tens of thousands of times by former for-profit students across the US. Since then, Connor had moved to Harvard where she, Merrill, and their staff of attorneys continued to work closely with us as they developed cases defending the right of borrowers to have their loans cancelled in cases of fraud. As lawyers, they were just as concerned as we were that debtors’ stories and demands be foregrounded as much as possible in legal proceedings and in media accounts of the fight to shut down predatory schools.

As part of our partnership, Debt Collective debtors and organizers spent time in Boston at the Clinic’s offices where we held informational sessions as as well as strategy meetings and media training events for those borrowers who would serve as plaintiffs in various cases. Before my experience collaborating with Merrill, Connor, and their staff, I had never thought of attorneys as partners in activism. I viewed legal work as something that happened “offstage” and often in an obscure language that kept ordinary people out of the conversation. Indeed, the Debt Collective’s experience with the Special Master, Joseph A. Smith, had confirmed this view. Collaborating with the Harvard Clinic opened my eyes to other possibilities, including the fact that lawyers (the good kind) were actually necessary to ensuring that the work of activists extended beyond the street protests and media moments that faded quickly from view.

After Trump’s election in 2016, the Harvard team doubled down on taking the government to court. In one of their first cases, known as Vara v. DeVos, attorneys sued on behalf of 7200 former Corinthian students in Massachusetts. DeVos, they argued, was defying the law by refusing to process borrowers’ relief claims. Hoping to put maximum pressure on the Secretary, Connor and Merrill collaborated on the case with Attorney General, Maura Healey, whose call for relief for former students had been ignored by the Obama administration. A victory in Vara could force the Secretary to erase debts for Massachusetts borrowers. More importantly, it would set a precedent that could lead to cancellations across the US, or at least in states where attorneys general filed claims. As consultants on that case and others, my Debt Collective colleagues and I put Clinic attorneys in contact with debtors, helped to dig up evidence about Corinthian’s crimes, and spoke with reporters about the lawsuits.

Given the change in federal administration, lawsuits had become an essential tactic. But focusing on this strategy came at a cost. Many debtors grew impatient and dropped out of our online networks during this time. The process of waiting for lawyers and judges to deliberate about the legality of debts that were already widely regarded as fraudulent was more than many could bear. It also did not allow for much participation. For two years, the Debt Collective had provided opportunities for former students to take action they regarded as meaningful. Those actions included filing Defense to Repayment, attending meetings at the Department of Education, speaking to reporters, confronting elected officials, and leading a dissident parade in New Orleans. At this point, the Debt Collective could offer none of those things. We were nearly out of money and facing a federal administration that could never be persuaded and was not pretending otherwise.

Patience was sometimes rewarded. Court battles could result in thrilling wins. A year after DeVos came into office, one of the lawsuits filed against her bore fruit. As part of a case known as Calvillo Manriquez v. DeVos, a federal judge had ordered the Department to stop collecting on borrowers. Despite the order, the Debt Collective kept hearing from debtors who were being harassed by collectors and having their wages seized. We knew that meant many more people, perhaps thousands, were in the same situation.

Lawyers soon filed another lawsuit. DeVos was eventually forced to admit that her agency was still collecting on more than 45,000 people. The judge held the Secretary in contempt and ordered her, once again, to immediately stop collections. “I’m not sending anyone to jail yet,” the judge said, “but it’s good to know that I have the ability.” Debt Collective members were giddy at the thought that their nemesis was being threatened with jail time as a result of ignoring them.

When the Secretary finally placed all debtors covered by the case in a stopped collection status, this admission of defeat was even more delightful. The victory was made sweeter still when a journalist discovered that, along with her signature, Devos included the handwritten phrase “with extreme displeasure” on each loan discharge order that she had been forced to sign under threat of incarceration.   

Though it represented the end of the disruptive, participatory style of campaigning that the Debt Collective had conducted up to that point, lawsuits resulted in additional loan relief. By the end of 2019, tens of thousands more former students from Corinthian College and ITT Tech would see their debts vanish for a total of $1.5 billion in federal student loan cancellation. While the number was minuscule compared to the size of the problem, this was still an astounding figure given the obstacles in our path. When I was standing in Zuccotti Park launching the Occupy Student Debt Campaign, if someone had old me that I would witness the erasure of more than a billion dollars in federal loans a mere eight years later, I would not have believed them. Back then, it had seemed almost impossible to dislodge the idea that college was a private investment that people should pay for out of pocket. Two years into the Trump administration, that view had not yet been invalidated. But with former for-profit college students finally seeing a measure of relief, I hoped we were getting closer.

Chapter Twenty