Last week the Biden administration made the long-delayed announcement that $5.8 billion in federal student debt held by 560,000 former students of Corinthian College will be canceled. Corinthian was a for-profit college that scammed tens of thousands of borrowers across the country out of billions in student loans before fraud allegations forced the school to finally shut 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 I will finally have my debt of over $32,000 relieved after almost eight years of fighting.
I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else. For-profit education shouldn’t exist. These “schools” are a scam through and through, but they are not an outlier—they are merely the worst part of a broken higher education system that has plunged tens of millions of people into unpayable debt for daring to want to learn and study for a career. It is time to face that reality.
I originally attended Corinthian because I wanted a better life for my family. From the minute I walked in the door, college recruiters took advantage of my desire to be a good mom to my kids. They promised me job placement and free tuition because I was a single parent. Most importantly, they promised me a quality education in the medical assisting field. 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 right by my kids was powerful. I wanted to believe I was on track to a higher paying job.
I didn’t realize I had been defrauded at first. I graduated from the medical assisting program in 2008 with honors. I was proud of my accomplishment, but I struggled to find a job in the field. My credentials were not taken seriously by employers. And I discovered that medical assisting is a low-paying field. I would barely make more than minimum wage. Why had recruiters insisted that a degree from their school would help me?
Then the bills started to come in. I started getting letters from two different loan servicers, but I didn’t remember signing up for most of those loans. According to my records, I had borrowed only $1,200 to attend the nine-month program. But I was being billed for tens of thousands of dollars! I panicked. Where had all that additional debt come from? More importantly, where had all that money gone?
I learned later that the money went straight to the college in the form of federal student loans. This was the “for-profit” part of a for-profit education. Loans taken out in my name had been used to enrich executives and investors at the school, including the college president, Jack Massimo, who earned $3 million per year. Various investors also made a profit, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s husband, Richard C. Blum, and Hillary Clinton confidant 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 saddled us with affected our debt-to-income ratio, I and other students were unable to buy homes. We were unable to go back to an accredited university, or even a community college, because Corinthian ate up all of our Pell Grants and maxed out all federal aid. I could not finance a car or even begin to think about helping my own children through college. I had ended up worse off by enrolling in college.
As a child, I was taught to trust educators. My experience at Corinthian broke 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 am not one to back down from a fight, I joined an organization called the Debt Collective. Former students of Corinthian had declared a debt strike—they were refusing to repay their loans and were demanding relief from the Department of Education. Through the Debt Collective, I learned that the federal government had aided and abetted Corinthian’s crimes by accrediting the school and allowing it to receive federal student loan dollars. I also learned that there was a law on the books that said defrauded borrowers could have their loans canceled.
I joined the strike and found my voice organizing with borrowers from across the US. We had attended different campuses and came from different backgrounds, but we all had the same story. With other strikers, 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 lied to and defrauded. Mitchell seemed to care and promised to help. I shouldn’t have believed him.
The Department of Education dragged its feet. Instead of canceling our debts immediately, they set up what seemed to us like an unnecessary tangle of bureaucratic processes. We would have to apply for relief as individuals, fill out paperwork, and wait for officials in Washington to decide our fate. But there was hope. Little by little, some borrowers got their debts erased. I hoped my time would come. When Trump won the presidential election in 2016, his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos refused to cancel any more debts. The Obama administration’s delays meant five more years of unnecessary suffering for me and many others.
While I am glad to finally see justice done for former Corinthian students, it should not have taken this 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 just for-profit colleges. As an organizer, I’ve talked to people who attended schools of all kinds. Many debtors feel like they were sold a bill of goods when it came to higher education. We were all promised that, if we studied hard, we would find good jobs and better lives. For millions, it didn’t work out that way. For those not born to wealth and privilege, college is a risk not worth taking. That’s the hard truth.
The pain that for-profit colleges have been able to inflict for so long, with the government shamelessly underwriting their grift, is a strong indictment of our current system writ large. In fact, for-profit colleges likely wouldn’t exist at all if we had a free college system. That’s why I am convinced that public college should be free. No one should have to go through what I went through. I’m grateful that Corinthian loans are finally going to be canceled. But it’s not enough. Biden can—and should—cancel student debt for everyone. I hope last week’s news is just the beginning of a better future for us all.