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 strike in 2015. Borrowers demanded relief from the Department of Education. I joined the campaign soon after because I recognized the strikers’ story as my own.
My story of being scammed by a for-profit college begins in 2009 after I graduated from high school. Like most people from working-class backgrounds, I had grown up believing that borrowing money for school was a secure investment and something required to get ahead. But since neither of my parents had attended college, I didn’t know much about the process of enrolling.
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 gaming. I have always been passionate about the media arts. But my immigrant parents feared such a career path was 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. It never occurred to me that a school which advertised on billboards, on public transportation, on television and online could get away with lying. If you had told me that a college accredited by the Department of Education could get away with enriching investors by loading students up with debt, I would have said you were delusional. Yet that is exactly what is happening. In fact, schools like mine are still open and scamming students even though the Department of Education has all the power it needs to shut them down.
Soon after I enrolled, I began to suspect that 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 said that our education was not 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. School officials had assured me that Pell grants would cover my 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. In my senior year, I agreed to take out a loan because my grants ran out. As I got closer to graduation, the costs kept rising. When I saw the loan statement, I realized the school had signed me up for loans for years without my knowledge.
In August of 2013, feeling disgusted and ashamed, I left the school. Disgruntled former students were gathering online to vent their frustrations, so I knew that I was not alone. I had also taken notes on my experiences and collected as many documents from the school as I could. In May of 2015, I organized a Facebook group where we could share our stories. Soon, the group filled with former students from Art Institutes’s campuses across the country. It was cathartic and eye opening. But it also exposed many of us to further cruelty. Some former students and faculty 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 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 letter on our behalf, which eventually led to the filing of a formal complaint. I learned that other for-profit colleges were also engaged in the same predatory tactics. My fellow 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 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 had advertised that had convinced me and my parents to sign up for the school were flat-out lies.
Former for-profit students like me have been fighting for years. From rallies in New Orleans to protests in Washington, D.C., we have kept the pressure on the federal government through three presidential administrations. In the process, we stopped thinking of debt as an individual burden. The fundamental issues 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 the Art Institutes only exist because there is a market for them and because they are intended for some students and not others. 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 merits of enrolling in college considering the cost. That is a generational betrayal that demands repair.
The cancellation of former Corinthian students’ loans is a major victory. But it’s only the beginning. Ultimately, we need to abolish all student debt, for everyone, and publicly fund college and make it free for everyone. There is no way the Department of Education system can justify keeping former Art Institutes students in debt, not to mention all the other people who were sold a bill of goods at schools of all kinds. Borrowers like me have only just begun to speak out. 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.