As of this year, the total outstanding federal student loan debt is over $1.7 trillion, which is collectively held by around 46 million borrowers. Even with temporary, pandemic-related pauses on student loan repayments, the debt crisis continues to worsen, and calls for complete debt cancellation continue to mount. On April 4, as part of a national day of action, members and allies of the Debt Collective, a debtor’s union, demonstrated outside of the Department of Education in Washington, DC, demanding that President Biden issue an Executive Order to cancel all student loan debt. In this installment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc speaks with Ami Schneider, one of the debt strikers who attended the demonstration in DC, about the growing movement to undo the colossal policy failure that created the student debt crisis.
Ami Schneider is an organizer and debt striker with the Debt Collective who holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Art Institute. In 2019, she published an article in HuffPost titled “I’m Drowning In $120K Of Student Debt And I’m Suing Betsy DeVos To Make Her Fix That.”
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Pre-Production/Studio: Adam Coley
Post-Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us. Some of us don’t realize that 43 million people in our country, in the United States, collectively hold $1.6 trillion in student debt, student loan debt. And I did say $1.6 trillion. And that reality in the midst of COVID got President Biden to temporarily cancel student debt when he froze repayments. That’s about to expire. And though in the process, it saved 37 million people $195 billion. Now, many want him to extend it to May 1. But others, like the Debt Collective, where our guest today is from, want him with a stroke of a pen to just cancel that and forgive student debt.
There was a demonstration held on April 4 by the Debt Collective, which is a debtor’s union. They’re calling on President Biden to use his executive power to cancel all student debt. To begin a new conversation on how we pay for and fund college education, to make sure people are not weighed down, driven into poverty, and straddled with debt just to get through college. Now, last March I produced a conversation with Umme Hoque, who is organizing director for the Debt Collective and about how to fight and cancel all student debt.
At that time, the Debt Collective, a debtor’s union, organized the Biden Jubilee 100, a debt strike they carried out by 100 people, one for each of Biden’s first 100 days in office. Now in the wake of the April 4 demonstration that was held this week, Biden’s continued reluctance to put pen to paper and cancel student debt is on the minds of a lot of people. And we’re joined by Ami Schneider, who’s one of the student debt strikers, and organized with the Debt Collective. And Ami, welcome. Good to have you with us.
Ami Schneider: Hi, thank you so much for having me.
Marc Steiner: We’re going to play a little clip here from April 4. So Amy, take us to that moment. What happened on April 4? Who was there? What did you do? Talk a bit about that day.
Ami Schneider: We had on April 4 the Debt Collective, and the Dream Defenders, and several other organizations decided they were going to do a day of action in DC outside of the Department of Education to demand that Joe Biden keep his campaign promises and cancel student debt. And we’re not asking for just the $10,000 of cancellation, we’re asking for him to abolish all of it. So we were a broad coalition of different individuals who were in the city to bring that point to the Department of Education and bring that fight to the department because we’re sick of being ignored. The pause on student loan repayment is about to expire. So many of us, even with having the pause, the moratorium on the loans, so many people still can’t even afford basic necessities, food, shelter. Their bills are still adding up, inflation was at a record high. So really we’re just here to say, don’t take these loans out of cancellation, or don’t unpause the moratorium and force us back into repayment, and demand that we have cancellation and, ultimately, college for all.
Marc Steiner: Let’s talk a bit about where your struggle is at the moment in DC around that particular issue. There is a real split it seems even in Congress itself with people like Schumer, the majority leader in the Senate talking about wanting Biden to extend it, but you have Nancy Pelosi – And I found this really interesting – You’ve got Nancy Pelosi, who is opposing it because she is funded in part… Let me take that back. I don’t know if that’s a reason. but in part the people who oppose it who supported her campaign run a thing called Freedom To Prosper which opposes this cancellation. So talk about that political struggle. Where is it? What do you think is going to happen? And where are these battle lines drawn?
Ami Schneider: So when I originally got into the fight, my personal fight, I qualified for borrower defense to repayment under the higher education act of 1965. So the Debt Collective actually found out about the borrower defense process, which wasn’t really well known at the time. And they started with the Corinthian 15, they got them involved. So 15 students originally started this whole fight. They decided to go on strike against their for-profit colleges. And then that turned into the borrower defense process, which at the time the Department of Education didn’t even have a process for borrowers to assert that they had been defrauded by their for-profit colleges. At that time, there was nothing even written on the website for the department, I don’t believe, that mentioned borrower defense. So when I filed, I filed in August 2015. The form that I filed on was actually through the Debt Collective.
So they had a borrower defense to repayment tool that they had actually created with the legalese on the backend for borrowers so that they could input the issues that they had with their school and then put it into legal terms. So it was very accessible to people, and it was the first time that people had en masse filed for borrower defense and asserted like, hey, our colleges are defrauding us. My personal story, I went to the Art Institutes, one of the EDMC schools, they had been sued for $11 billion, sued by several states’ attorneys general. I still have my debt, which is crazy to me. I’ve been in this fight for so long. I filed my borrower defense in August of 2015. All of that is still held up in courts with Sweet v. Cardona. It was Sweet v. DeVos. Then it was Sweet v. the Obama administration at one point.
So we’ve been in this fight for a really long time, and we’re just trying to get justice for the for-profit colleges. So that’s my personal battle, which is kind of separate from what we’re coming together to say cancel all student debt. So for me, I learned through my work with the Debt Collective that the for-profit colleges, they only exist because of being a symptom of a much broader issue. So that’s a symptom, but higher education as a whole is the disease. It’s become extremely corrupt, extremely financialized. Even community college at this point is unaffordable for people. I graduated in 2010. I, like I said, I still have all of my loans. None of them have been canceled despite filing and asserting my right to have borrower defense, but I also have kids. So I have an 11-year-old right now.
And I don’t know how I’m going to send my child to college. I don’t know how I’m going to send either one of my children to college because it’s completely unaffordable at this point. And I don’t even know that I would want them to go to college and have loans that are more than a mortgage. That’s kind of where I’m at. As far as the fight for complete debt cancellation, there are several politicians and elected officials that are on our side, but it’s kind of a mixed bag. There’re ones that are calling for complete loan cancellation like Ilhan Omar, Bernie Sanders, Pramila Jayapal. These are folks that are on our side, they’ve been on our side. They understand why debt cancellation is a necessity. But then there’s also folks that are elected that say, well, it should be a $50,000 cap or a $10,000 cap, which is completely ridiculous. That doesn’t even cover so many people’s loans. I personally have $30,000, roughly, under my own name, but then the rest of the $120,000 in total loans that I have is under…
Marc Steiner: How much did you just say?
Ami Schneider: $120,000 total. But most of that is in PLUS loans that are under my mom’s name.
Marc Steiner: Gotcha.
Ami Schneider: I feel like that’s another place where the conversation kind of gets muddied. A lot of people think this debt only saddles younger millennials, but I’m 36 this year. Not 36 quite yet, but almost 36. And my mom, she’s older than me, obviously. I don’t want to give away her age, but she was roughly 24 when she had me. She doesn’t even know how she’s going to retire. She has no idea how to right now pay her bills with these student loans. Right now she’s on the pause because of the moratorium and because of the borrower defense and all of that. But if I get denied for borrower defense, and then the moratorium also ends, she would be also stuck with repayment.
There’s just so many people out there, thousands, hundreds of thousands of people out there that just have these loans that are triple digit loans. A lot of people have triple digit loans. So saying $10,000 in cancellation, that’s not really going to help anybody. And that’s not really addressing the issue, which the issue comes down to the fact that college should be a free public good. It should be publicly available, as it once was, instead of having this financial incentive behind it that has made it unreachable and unattainable for people to go.
Marc Steiner: Yeah. I just read a piece this morning that said that one in five of likely voters with student debt are not very confident in their ability to make payments. No, the other way around, that one in five are very confident. The rest are not, of people who are likely to vote. I think that’s something that should maybe wake Democrats and Republicans as well up in Congress, that that many people that could be affected by this. Where do you… And it is a huge issue. It’s been a huge issue since I was in college, and that’s many more moons ago than when you were in college. But so, where do you think this is going to go?
Why don’t we just take a step back here for a second. One of the things I read this morning, and if you can’t speak to this, that’s fine. I found it interesting. There’s actually a battle over whether Biden can actually legally cancel the debt. Now, have you gotten into the minutia about that, or gotten into understanding, or what that might mean?
Ami Schneider: I have a little bit of an understanding. Thomas Gokey is the Debt Collective guy that knows, he’s the one that really discovered this kind of loophole, or as he likes to relate it to Star Wars and how there’s like a pressure point on the Death Star that just kind of blows it all up. Kind of the same thing in the 1965 Higher Education Act, Congress granted the Education Department to unilaterally cancel student debt without congressional approval. And that’s written into the Act. And from my understanding, all of this, the politics around it are muddying it, and people want to have congressional support for it.
But realistically, all Joe Biden really needs to do is pick up a pen to do so, which was granted to the Education Department again in the Higher Education Act of 1965. And the Debt Collective has had tons of legal minds on this issue. There’s tons of support showing that is an actuality. Like he can actually pick up a pen. I’m not sure of all of the intricacies of it, but I know that it has been well researched by the legal folks that help out the Debt Collective. And they have stated, yes, it is possible for him to just pick up the pen and cancel the debt.
Marc Steiner: The person that you’ve…
Ami Schneider: And we’ve already kind of seen that, actually. When Trump paused the loans even to begin with, that was because he had that power. It’s the same power that grants the cancellation power, because that is something that the executive branch has control over. And right now we are in a pause for the same reason, because they can pause it. And we’ve kind of shown that the government is still functioning without these loan payments. People are doing much better than they would be if the loans were reinstated and now owed, because people are still struggling, but it’s going to be so much worse if that pause ends.
Marc Steiner: Let’s say for argument’s sake that Biden does the minimum and signs an act saying that we extend this to May 1. Let’s just say that for argument’s sake. What is then your strategy to make, to go from there, and what is it exactly you want to see, and how do you think you could get there?
Ami Schneider: My strategy personally is that I’ve been on strike. I’ve been on a debt strike since I graduated college, because I went to a for-profit college. I’m kind of on strike on my own because I had been defrauded. I had reached out to my senators, et cetera, and hadn’t really gotten anywhere until I joined with the Debt Collective. And so we now have been building our power through coalition building, through really getting the debtors’ union to have members, building our membership, building our power as people. And that’s what we’re going to continue to do, is just build that people power. There’s a lot of folks that are going on strike that are already on strike. I don’t plan to ever pay for my loans.
I can’t pay, won’t pay. I’m in a place where I’m in it for the long haul. I believe that education is a right and that it should be accessible and publicly funded for people to go. And I also believe that the loans will be canceled. Like I believe it in my heart, because it’s the just thing to do. It doesn’t make sense to straddle all of these people with all of this debt. If the Republicans were able to cancel $1.7 trillion for 600 billionaires, there’s no reason that they can’t cancel the debt for 45 million students who are suffering under this crushing debt of student loans.
Marc Steiner: And I think that last point you made is really a very critically important point for people to understand. And you can even say it again, because I think people don’t get that. There’s this long history in this country of corporations being forgiven their debt, billions and trillions over the decades. And so it’s not unprecedented for this to happen.
Ami Schneider: Right. It’s not. And the thing is it would benefit so many people to have student loans canceled. Even if you don’t have student debt. Having people, like if you have your own business, let’s say, you don’t have student debt, but people with student debt, they’re going to have more buying power to go and frequent your establishment, to buy your goods, to invest back into the economy, instead of just going to these loan servicers that is really doing nothing to benefit the economy. That’s not doing anything to better anybody’s lives. Whereas if we had that money in our pockets, we’re able to do things within our communities, put that money back into our communities, reinvest in small businesses and things like that. We want to be able to have purchasing power. We want to be able to buy homes and have families and live the American dream. But with these loans, that’s next to impossible. And again, they can completely eliminate $1.7 trillion of debt for corporations, but they can’t do the same for 45 million Americans who just want to live their lives.
Marc Steiner: I was really taken by what you said when you said that you’ve been on your own personal strike even before you joined the Debt Collective, not repaying the loan. And you, like millions of others, are in that same situation. So what does that mean for you personally, though? In the conversations with yourself, with your other friends, people in Debt Collective about what you face in the future if they don’t do something to squash this debt and you’re stuck with what you’re stuck with?
Ami Schneider: When I first went on my debt strike, on my personal debt strike, I did not know how to do it in a way that would protect my credit. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. I was just like, I’m not going to pay them because they scammed me kind of a thing. I used up my forbearances, my deferments, actually I think I might have a little bit of deferment left because I just stopped paying attention at all to my bills.
Because I was like, I could not pay. There was no way I could pay. I graduated college when I was pregnant with my now 11-year-old, and immediately I didn’t have money for anything else. I had a child that I had to support that I had to provide for that needed my resources more than Naviance needed my resources. But at first, when I first went on strike, my credit tanked. I started with a 340 credit score back then I think, something around there. It was really, really bad. But after I joined with the Debt Collective, filed my borrower defense to repayment, that put me into a status where I’m on strike, because technically a strike is anybody that’s not paying anything. So if you’re in a $0 income based paid repayment plan, you are already on strike. You might as well join with the Debt Collective and join our union.
If you’re already in default, what do you have to lose? Join the Debt Collective union, collectivize that power and come together. Because when you are alone with that debt, it does become very burdensome. It becomes a very heavy weight. There’s a lot of shame when you’re just dealing with it on your own. And that is one of the hardest things, I think, for people to overcome is that shame. Whereas now I’m like, yeah, I don’t pay my loans. I don’t care. There’s no shame from me because I know they’re illegitimate. People are like, well, pay your loans. You took them out, blah, blah, blah. And I’m like, okay, but they’re illegitimate. That stuff does not bother me anymore. But for so many people it does, because they don’t understand that their debt is a leverage.
They have political power with that debt. If they come together collectively and demand change to happen, our dollars are votes. Our dollars matter. Where we put our money matters. And if we collectively say we’re not going to pay you, that’s very powerful. It sends a huge message. And there’s so many ways to do it without impacting your credit. You have deferment, you have forbearance, you have the income based repayment plans that can get you down to $0 payments. For people that went to for-profit colleges, they can definitely file their borrower defense to repayment and get into administrative forbearance. Any form of non-payment is a valid form of strike. And another thing is everybody doesn’t have to go on strike. We’re not asking people to go damage their credit or stop paying or impact their credit scores. It does take a lot to put yourself in that position and not everybody is going to be comfortable in that position.
And that’s totally fine. There are other things, other ways to support the movement, other ways to voice support for it. There’s writing senators, writing op-eds, doing any number of things just to get the word out that these debts are very burdensome, that they are crushing, that they are impacting our lives in such a negative way. And I think one of the most important things that I’ve learned through the Debt Collective is that alone, our debts are a burden, but together they make us powerful, which is where I’m at now. I don’t feel any shame over having my student loans. I did nothing wrong. I went to school to try to better my life. I had complete faith in the Education Department and higher ed back then because I didn’t know any better. I thought the messaging was always you go to college, you do better.
That’s how you move up in life. I didn’t even know that for-profit colleges had this insidious underbelly to them. I didn’t know anything about that. Had I known, I might have made completely different choices, but then I wouldn’t be here talking to you today and trying to change everything that I’m trying to change. So it’s terrible that I went through all of that, but at the same time it feels really good to be a part of a movement that’s trying to change things for not just myself but for everybody, for my kids, for your kids, for future generations so that they’re not saddled with this debt. So that they can actually go to college and not worry about how they’re going to pay it off, or how they’re going to be stuck with a mortgage rate debt for the rest of their lives.
Marc Steiner: So you mentioned that things also changed for you when you got involved with the organization itself, with the debt collective. So I’m curious, how that did help, and what other people can do, what actions you’re going to take now? Because it clearly is not going to happen overnight. This a serious struggle has to take place in Congress. You all are in this collective movement with Dream Defenders and others to say, no, we have to end student debt. And people are also thinking about how we can organize our higher education funding differently so future generations don’t have to go through what you’re going through, or what I went through.
Ami Schneider: Right. So for people that are interested in getting involved and doing more, they can go to debtcollective.org. That’s where they can sign up for a newsletter. They can also join the debtor’s union through there, and that’s a way to join with community. For me, the reason that joining with the Debt Collective was so powerful is I went to a school that was a for-profit. A lot of people moved away afterwards. There weren’t a lot of people to talk to about what I had gone through. It was very isolating. There were a couple of us from my campus that had experienced similar things, but nobody was really talking about it. There was such shame about even bringing it up that people weren’t talking about it. And then I went on Facebook in 2014 and I joined with a group of other Art Institute students.
That group was called IMAI. And I discovered that it wasn’t just my school. Wasn’t just my major. It was everybody that went to my school had had very similar experiences with recruitment and all of that. So just having that weight lifted, of like, hey, I’m not alone, made it easier to talk about having this debt. And then when we joined with the Debt Collective, that was even more powerful because then we had learned about the Corinthian 15, how it happened at Everest and Wyotech. And then we learned about ITT Tech and how the same issues were happening there. University of Phoenix. All of these different schools had been operating on this for-profit model. Suddenly you’re like, oh, this wasn’t my fault. This was a systemic thing, and I was preyed on, and I was targeted, because apparently I had a target on my back.
They used something called the pain funnel for recruitment at these for-profit colleges. So they would literally try to pinpoint the places to make you feel insecure and doubt yourself so that college was like, yeah, I need to join this college, otherwise my life is forever never going to be good. And it was like a very high paced, information overload kind of an experience. And that’s, it’s an aggressive recruitment style which is not legal. And that’s why these schools are being shut down, is because of all of the illegal, deceptive practices that they had demonstrated during recruitment. So just like finding out about that, that was hugely powerful for me. That’s when I was like, I don’t even care that I have this debt. Like I do care, obviously, that’s why I’m trying to cancel it. But it wasn’t like… The shame part of it had left me.
I didn’t feel that deep amount of shame, that deep amount of I’ve done something wrong. This is a moral failing. Because it’s not. Debt is not a moral failing. Everybody has debt, whether they want to admit it or not, whether it’s a couple of bucks or hundreds of thousands of dollars. There shouldn’t be a shame around it when that’s literally what we have to use to operate in a capitalistic society. Just knowing that was helpful. And then when we furthered the Debt Collective work into inviting in public colleges and things like that, a lot of public colleges and universities are operating on for-profit college models, they’re just cloaked in this nonprofit cloak, really. At so many universities now, the tuition is exorbitant. There’s no way for people to be able to afford that without going into massive amounts of debt.
Whereas many of the public universities and colleges, even community colleges, they used to be heavily publicly funded. But so much of that funding has been stripped away, stripped away. And it’s like, what are we using that money for? We’re using that money to fund a war. We’re using that money to fund things that we don’t need to fund, fighter jets that don’t even work, when we could be – And also bailouts for billionaires and corporations. When we could be funding education, we could be canceling student debt. We could be actually incentivizing the American people to go to college and get an education and go back into their communities and help their communities thrive.
Education opens so many doors, but those doors are currently closed to so many people because of debt, because of the inaccessibility of higher education, because of the pulling of the funding of higher education. Ideally, I would really like to see complete 100% total cancellation of federally held student debt, private loans are a little bit of a different beast. But then moving also to publicly funded college, the way that we used to have when my grandparents went to college, publicly funded.
Marc Steiner: Right. No, no. Right. No. I probably could be your grandfather. When we went to school, when I went to college, A, I had a scholarship, and B, tuitions were low. They were affordable for people to go to the University of Maryland, to some other state schools, you could afford it. And it really has changed. Let’s close with this. I want you to, the sounds people are hearing are from the demonstration you had on April 4. So talk a bit about A, what happened on April 4, and where you all go from here.
Ami Schneider: April 4 was an incredible day for me, honestly, to see how many people were there, how broad the coalition building had become. I got very emotional throughout the day because when I first joined the fight in 2015, people were angry at us. They were like, this is a pie in the sky idea. You’re never going to get any debt canceled. You’re never going to, none of this is realistic. Well, since I’ve joined the Debt Collective, we’ve had over a billion dollars in student loan debt canceled. So all of these people that said any debt cancellation was impossible, we’ve already proven them wrong with that. And on April 4, seeing all of those people from all of these broad different coalitions there, standing up, fighting, it made me so much more hopeful than I’ve ever been.
I feel in my heart, I believe that the cancellation is coming. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, and I’m going to keep putting pressure on elected officials until it is done. And I hope that other people will also take initiative and stand up and say that this isn’t just and it’s not right, join the Debt Collective. And really let the Education Department know that we’re not going to stand for this anymore.
Marc Steiner: Well, Amy Schneider, I don’t want you to miss your way back home because you got to get back home. You got kids waiting and struggles to fight. So I do want to thank you for taking time with us here today on The Marc Steiner Show on The Real News. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you. I hope we talk again.
Ami Schneider: Well, thank you so much.
Marc Steiner: Thank you for being strong enough to stand up and fight for your beliefs and put it all on the line. It means a great deal. And I want to encourage folks to really go to the debtcollective.org. And that’s one word, debtcollective.org. And you can see it here on the screen. And just go. And if you’re one of those folks, if your kids are those folks, if you, if you’re in that struggle how you’re going to pay for this, check out what they’re doing. Get involved. It’s a large coalition building, the struggle doesn’t stop here or on April 4. It keeps on going. And Amy Schneider, once again, thank you so much for joining us here on the show. It’s been a pleasure to have you with us.
Ami Schneider: And thank you so much. Have a great rest of your day.
Marc Steiner: You too, you too, travel safe, travel safe. And I want to thank all the folks here at The Real News, Adam Colley, who is making this buzz here today, Stephen Frank, who’s going to be doing all the editing, make me sound right, make this whole thing sound good. And you can write to me here at firstname.lastname@example.org. And let me know what you think and I’ll write you right back within days of getting your email. I’ll do my best to get right back to you and we can continue the dialogue there. So I’m Marc Steiner here for The Marc Steiner Show on The Real News. Thanks for joining us. Take care.