In 2013, I entered college to become a licensed practical nurse. I chose the Grand Rapids, Mich., campus of Everest, owned by Corinthian Colleges, because it promised me a high-quality program that I could finish quickly. I was eager to get my nursing degree so I could pursue my dream of working in a health clinic in Africa.
Within a few months, I was deeply in debt for an education that fell far below my expectations. Recently, I joined with other former Everest students in refusing to repay our federal and private student loans. We’re calling ourselves the Corinthian 15.
The list of Everest’s alleged false promises and defrauded students is long. At its height, Corinthian Colleges operated more than 100 Everest, Heald and WyoTech schools throughout the United States and Canada. Most of those schools have since been closed or purchased by another company. In the past eight years, Corinthian has been the target of some 200 lawsuits filed by state and federal agencies. Last month, the company received a letter that it would be delisted from the Nasdaq Stock Market for failing to file financial reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In many news stories about the company, Corinthian hasn’t commented about the pending lawsuits.
In October 2013, California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris filed a lawsuit against Corinthian alleging that the company violated consumer protection and securities laws. About a year later, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) filed a lawsuit accusing Corinthian of predatory lending, including strong-arming students into enrolling and engaging in illegal debt collection tactics such as withholding diplomas and books.
I experienced these kinds of tactics first-hand. During the enrollment process, I explained to an Everest financial adviser that I could not afford to make loan payments while attending school. I was reassured that I would not be required to repay my loans until after I graduated. He quickly signed me up for federal and privately held loans. By graduation, I owed more than $24,000.
Two months into my program, I received my first loan bill. That’s when I learned that I was expected to pay the interest on my private loan debt while in school. Soon I was selling my plasma twice a week to buy groceries and make my interest-only payments.
The program also lacked the quality I had been promised by Everest’s admissions staff. Classes consisted mostly of teachers reading aloud from books. After I earned my degree, I did not have the knowledge I needed to pass the state licensing exam. I eventually passed it by spending hours researching the test questions online and watching YouTube videos.
According to the Higher Education Act of 1965, students enrolled in schools that are closing are to be given the option to withdraw and have their loans discharged. I wrote a letter to the university president, demanding that I be allowed to take advantage of this “closed school discharge.” My request was denied because I was too far into the 12-month program: I was almost done with the program at this point, and I would still be expected to repay my loans.
Soon, by connecting with other students on Facebook and reading news articles about the school, I discovered that thousands of students had been caught in Everest’s debt trap. Through social media and with the support of the Debt Collective, a group related to the Occupy movement, hundreds of current and former Corinthian students have been demanding that the Department of Education discharge our federal loans.
The Department of Education says its mission is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” Where was the Department of Education when Corinthian began preying on students? Corinthian Colleges had the option to threaten bankruptcy, sell its campuses and wash its hands of its financial problems. But students are stuck with their debt.
The Department of Education has the authority to discharge student loans when colleges defraud students. The department makes a profit on student debt, and is projected to take in $127 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. While the CFPB has negotiated a reduction in the amount of private loans that Corinthian students will have to pay back, the Department of Education has yet to take action on the federal loans.
By using our debt as leverage, we’re making our voices heard. We are not asking for a handout. We are demanding justice for students ensnared in a debt trap.
Of course, a debt strike comes with many potential consequences. Refusing to pay back our loans means the federal government can garnish our wages and tax refunds; our credit scores will also take a hit.
While our cause is modest by comparison, we recognize that some of the greatest human rights movements in history were launched by the small acts of a few individuals. After voting in the 1872 national election, Susan B. Anthony was arrested and convicted of “illegal voting” while fighting for her right to vote. It took until 1920 for women to receive the right to vote. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. This soon led to the revolutionary Montgomery bus boycott.
If those who came before us can take a stand in the face of persecution, harassment, beatings, imprisonment and even death, I will certainly stand in the face of wage garnishment and a tarnished credit report.