Astra Taylor is is a co-founder of the Debt Collective and a Shuttleworth Foundation fellow.
Since Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was elected to the Senate in 2012, she has shown an uncommon ability to make footage from committee hearings go viral, as many a government bureaucrat or business leader who has appeared before her can attest. But her questioning of acting Education Secretary John B. King Jr. during his confirmation hearing last month seems to have slipped under the radar. As she said to King, the Education Department has been woefully slow in assisting victims cheated by Corinthian Colleges, which “sucked down billions and billions of dollars in federal student loan aid by roping in students with false and misleading information and then saddling them with debt that was just going to be impossible to repay.” Only 1,300 of the 40,000 students the department said could eligible for “fast-track relief” had received it, according to Warren. When King assured her that a team was working on the issue, she replied, “This isn’t hard, what we’re trying to do here. Students are waiting, their credit is getting worse and worse, the interest is accumulating on these loans, the process needs to move faster. And I don’t get why it doesn’t move faster. We know they’ve been defrauded.”
Warren’s demands are based on the right under federal law known as defense to repayment, which requires that student borrowers whose schools engage in abusive and deceptive practices get relief. The Education Department had ignored the law in this area for decades until the Debt Collective, a group I co-founded, helped a group of Corinthian students launch a student debt strike and facilitated the submission of more than 5,000 defense-to-repayment applications, forcing the Obama administration to deal with the issue. Unfortunately, instead of granting the applications and discharging people’s federal loans, they decided to rewrite the regulation by initiating a series of negotiated rulemaking sessions to establish a new federal standard. Obama appointees appear to be on a path to make it nearly impossible for students to get the debt cancellations to which they are entitled. In the words of California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, the federal standard that officials have proposed will have the effect of “narrowing, limiting, and delaying student relief” in crucial ways I’ll get back to.
The stakes are high: Hundreds of thousands of students have been deceived by schools such as Corinthian. Furthermore, whatever rules are eventually adopted will apply to all students, whether they attended for-profit, private or public institutions of higher learning. Yet Warren’s questioning and the rulemaking sessions have gone mostly unnoticed outside education policy circles. The conspicuous lack of attention stands in stark opposition to the story of a Texas man named Paul Aker being dragged to court by seven federal marshals for a $1,500, 29-year-old student loan debt. The story spread like wildfire over traditional and social media the same week the Washington meetings were held.
After Aker’s story went viral, further details suggested the story was more complicated. But the contrast between the attention paid to the original story of Aker being escorted from his home by men holding guns and the far more consequential actions in rooms full of legislators and bureaucrats exemplifies the distinction the philosopher Slavoj Zizek makes between “subjective violence” and “systemic violence.” Where subjective violence is visceral, shocking and immediate, systemic violence is subtle, hard to see and drawn out. Systemic violence, according to Zizek, is the “often catastrophic consequences of the functioning of our economic and political systems.” That’s what we will see if, over the objections of students and their allies, the Education Department condemns countless people to a fate worse than Aker’s — or, at least, to what are likely far larger debt loads.
The draft of the federal standard that officials are proposing (which has not been adopted yet and is likely to change after next month’s third and final meeting) is even more restrictive than the existing defense-to-repayment guidelines, substantially narrowing the categories of school misconduct that can yield relief. Among other problems, the draft rules include a statute of limitations of two years, though it often takes students much longer to realize they were duped. (The limitations are also ironic, given the fact there is no statute of limitations for collecting on student loans.) In some cases, the proposed rules would require students seeking a discharge to go to bat against their much-better-resourced schools, a situation that would all but require a lawyer, which most deceived borrowers cannot afford. Finally, as Harris notes, the “proposal does not provide any procedure to grant broad, automatic relief to borrowers, even when it is clear that a predatory school has systematically abused and deceived large numbers of students through widespread practices.” On Wednesday, Warren and 31 other Senate Democrats sent a letter expressing their concerns “that the department’s current proposal does not seem to ensure the process is fair for students.”
Should the Education Department implement the latest rules draft, or something close to it, the consequences for people’s lives will be, to use Zizek’s term, catastrophic. True, federal marshals won’t drag them to jail, but hundreds of thousands of people will continue to suffer the daily indignities of educational and financial inequity, for which they will be forced to make steep monthly payments on loans that were issued for worthless degrees. Unemployed or stuck in dead-end jobs, pushed to default, many will have their tax returns, Social Security payments or disability benefits garnished. Because their federal student aid has been maxed out, they will be denied the chance to attend a school that could provide them with a high-quality education and help them secure basic employment or, better yet, a meaningful and remunerative career. In their struggle to make ends meet, some will find themselves homeless, which has already happened to several strikers and their family members. They will suffer the stress, anxiety, health problems and reduced lifespans that a growing number of studies show are part and parcel of being poor in the United States.
This brazen dismissal of borrowers’ rights stands in stark contrast to the Education Department’s earlier public pronouncements. Last June, under pressure from the Corinthian strike, then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan promised to provide scammed students with “every penny of relief they are entitled to under the law.” Eight months later, that promise remains unfulfilled.
Meanwhile, for-profit colleges that have been under investigation and even fined continue to enroll students — disproportionately people of color, women, veterans and the poor — in substandard programs at exorbitant costs, funneling billions of taxpayer dollars into private coffers. Instead of propping up such corporations and wrecking lives, authorities should turn off the faucet of federal funds to for-profit schools and grant the class-wide debt discharges to which Corinthian students and others are legally entitled.