When I heard the news this week that, after years of delay, the Department of Education will finally cancel $5.8 billion in debt for 560,000 students who attended the for-profit Corinthian Colleges, a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders. I know how crushing student debt can be because, just a few years ago, I owed $70,000 for a worthless business degree from the school.
My story starts at Everest College, a branch of Corinthian, in Southern California. For years, school officials lied to me. The school misrepresented job placement statistics to boost enrollment and, year after year, officials convinced me to sign financial documents that I didn’t understand.
I became suspicious around graduation, when school employees insisted I sign a waiver that stated I wouldn’t try to sue the school or its parent company. I wanted to participate in the graduation ceremony, so, under pressure, I signed my rights away.
My suspicion that something wasn’t right turned to terror when, after leaving the school, most of the students in my class couldn’t establish careers in the real world. Many employers did not regard a degree from Corinthian as legitimate. One hiring manager even laughed at me when he said he had attended Everest. I was devastated.
I knew something had to be done. With the help of some classmates, I started organizing students at a coffee shop in Ontario. We told our stories at meetings and contacted attorneys and other groups we thought might assist us. Almost everyone we spoke to said there was nothing we could do because my classmates and I had signed an arbitration agreement that barred us from taking legal action.
The administrators thought they had covered all the bases. Boy, were they wrong.
In the summer of 2014, organizers from a debtors union, the Debt Collective, came to meet us. This was the moment we had been hoping for. The organizers informed us that we had been scammed because the federal government failed to do its job. While Everest had broken the law and acted unethically, we were in debt for worthless degrees because the Department of Education had issued the loans and accredited our predatory school.
In November, fellow defrauded borrowers and I protested a public hearing hosted by the Department of Education. We wanted to let government officials know that they had a fight on their hands. Each of us spoke from the podium that day, telling our stories of being lied to and defrauded. Most in our group had never participated in any kind of activism before, but we came together to ask for help and to make sure this would never happen again.
That day changed everything. By 2015, 15 of us had launched a student debt strike, widely acknowledged as the first in U.S. history. We called ourselves the Corinthian 15 and even came up with a slogan: “Alone the bank owns you; but together we own the bank!” Through organizing, we learned that our individual struggles were part of a collective problem. We sought justice, not a handout. My fellow strikers and I said, “We won’t pay!”