Last week, the Biden administration made the long-delayed announcement that $5.8 billion in federal student debt held by 560,000 former Corinthian College students will be forgiven. Corinthian was a for-profit college that scammed tens of thousands of borrowers across the country on billions in student loans before allegations of fraud forced the school to finally closes its doors in 2015.
As a graduate of Everest Institute (a branch of Corinthian) in Newport News, Virginia, the news brought tears to my eyes. I realized that my debt of over $32,000 was finally going to be relieved after almost eight years of fighting.
I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else. Education for profit should not exist. These “schools” are a scam through and through, but they’re no exception – they’re just the worst part of a failing higher education system that has plunged tens of millions into unpayable debt for having dared to want to learn and study for a career. It is time to face this reality.
I first attended Corinthian because I wanted a better life for my family. From the minute I walked through the door, college recruiters took advantage of my desire to be a good mother to my children. They promised me free placement and tuition because I was a single parent. Most importantly, they promised me quality training in medical assisting. But instead they treated me and other students like numbers instead of human beings. To them, we were nothing more than dollars on a balance sheet. When they started asking me to sign documents that I didn’t understand, I got a little suspicious. But the sales pitch was effective and my desire to do well with my children was strong. I wanted to believe that I was on the right path to a better paying job.
I didn’t know I had been a victim of fraud at first. I graduated from the medical assistant program in 2008 with honors. I was proud of my accomplishment, but struggled to find a job in the field. My credentials were not taken seriously by employers. And I found out that medical assisting is a low paying field. I would earn little more than minimum wage. Why had the recruiters insisted that a diploma from their school would help me?
Then the bills started coming. I started getting letters from two different loan managers, but I couldn’t remember signing for most of those loans. According to my records, I only borrowed $1,200 to complete the nine-month program. But I was billed tens of thousands of dollars! I panicked. Where did all this extra debt come from? More importantly, where had all that money gone?
I later learned that the money was going directly to the college in the form of federal student loans. This was the “for-profit” part of a for-profit education. The loans taken out in my name had been used to enrich the school’s executives and investors, including the college’s president, Jack Massimo, who earned $3 million a year. Various investors also made profits, including Senator Dianne Feinstein’s husband, Richard C. Blumand Hillary Clinton’s confidante Leon Panetta.
While the rich got richer, I had been completely robbed of my future, my hopes and my dreams. In the end, all I got from Corinthian “College” was a boatload of debt.
Because the insane amount of debt Corinthian imposed on us affected our debt-to-income ratio, I and other students were unable to purchase homes. We couldn’t go back to an accredited university, or even a community college, because Corinthian ate up all of our Pell grants and maxed out all of the federal aid. I couldn’t finance a car or even begin to think about helping my own kids go to college. I ended up getting worse by enrolling in college.
As a child, I was taught to trust educators. My experience at Corinthian shattered that trust. I wondered: how can this be legal? How can this happen in a country where we pride ourselves on higher education? I was devastated.
Since I’m not one to back down from a fight, I joined an organization called Collective debt. Former Corinthian students had declared a debt strike – they were refusing to repay their loans and demanding relief from the Department of Education. Through the Debt Collective, I learned that the federal government aided and abetted Corinthian’s crimes by accrediting the school and allowing it to receive federal student loans. I also learned that there was a law on the books that said defrauded borrowers could have their loans forgiven.
I joined the strike and found my voice by organizing with borrowers from across the United States. We had attended different campuses and came from different backgrounds, but we all had the same story. With other attackers, I even attended a historic meeting in Washington, DC, where we told Ted Mitchell, Obama’s Undersecretary of Education, as well as officials from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Treasury Department, how we had been deceived and lied to. Mitchell seemed to care and promised to help. I shouldn’t have believed it.
The Department of Education dragged its feet. Instead of canceling our debts immediately, they put in place what seemed to us to be an unnecessary tangle of bureaucratic processes. We had to apply for relief as individuals, fill out paperwork, and wait for officials in Washington to decide our fate. But there was hope. Gradually, some borrowers saw their debts erased. I hoped my time would come. When Trump won the presidential election in 2016, his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos refused to cancel more debt. The Obama administration’s delays meant another five years of needless suffering for me and many others.
While I’m glad to finally see justice done for the former students of Corinth, it shouldn’t have taken so long. Debtors like me have endured years of harassing collection calls, wage garnishments, tax offsets, and the stress of not knowing if we would ever see relief.
That’s why I’ve come to see the problem as bigger than for-profit colleges. As an organizer, I have spoken to people who have attended schools of all kinds. Many debtors feel like they have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to higher education. We were all promised that if we studied hard we would find good jobs and a better life. For millions, it didn’t work out that way. For those not born into wealth and privilege, college is a risk not worth taking. It’s the hard truth.
The pain that for-profit colleges have been able to inflict for so long, with the government shamelessly guaranteeing their rip-off, is a strong indictment of our current system as a whole. In fact, for-profit colleges probably wouldn’t exist at all if we had a free college system. This is why I am convinced that the public university should be free. No one should have to go through what I went through. I am grateful that the Corinthian loans are finally cancelled. But it’s not enough. Biden can — and should — cancel student debt for everyone. I hope last week’s news is just the start of a brighter future for all of us.