Student debt strikers are meeting with federal officials Tuesday afternoon in Washington, D.C., as their ranks swell and their campaign to force changes in how the government manages higher education lending gains traction.
After launching in February as a group of 15, the strike now has 100 current and former Corinthian Colleges students who are refusing to make payments on federal loans taken out for classes at now-defunct for-profit colleges around the country. When a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) staffer invited the original “Corinthian 15” to the capital for a meeting, the strikers reached out to the Department of Education (ED) — the true target of their strike — to join the meeting. A Department spokesperson confirmed the ED is sending Undersecretary Ted Mitchell, who told ThinkProgress over the winter that Corinthian’s victims would be better off finishing their educations than having the massive personal debts created by the company cleared from their record.
The strikers feel otherwise, and are hoping to force the ED to reconsider. At an event for strikers and supporters Monday night, the students-turned-activists told personal stories to illustrate that their plight didn’t start with laziness, expressing frustration with the way they say the media has characterized it.
“I started working when I was 14 years old. As I got older I decided I wanted to do something other than typing or changing diapers,” said Pamela Hunt, a Connecticut mother of eight who joined the strike after a Corinthian school destroyed her credit without advancing her career. “I’m employed now, but it’s not in my field. It’s not a job I even needed a high school diploma for, but I’m $150,000 in debt,” Hunt said.
Stories like Hunt’s abound, and they’re motivating people to seek remedies from the ED because the agency is continuing to enforce Corinthian-related debts despite having hounded the company into bankruptcy following a multi-year investigation into dishonest recruiting tactics and career services operations. The number of confirmed strikers has grown sevenfold in about five weeks, and organizers told ThinkProgress that they are processing hundreds more inquiries from Corinthian victims interested in joining. Achieving critical mass is important in radical debt activism, whose champions often point out that “if you owe the bank $1,000 the bank owns you, but if you owe the bank a million dollars, you own the bank.”
The strike tactic is just one of the avenues that Corinthian students are pursuing to get out from under the government-enforced debts. Activists plan to file some 300 separate applications with the ED for something called “defense to repayment,” a rarely-used administrative procedure for canceling federal student loan debts that requires the petitioner to demonstrate that they were deceived by their education provider.
Tuesday’s meeting is a high-water mark for the debt activists’ influence over establishment institutions. But unless it produces a full reversal in ED’s thinking and policy toward Corinthian’s current and former customers, the strikes seem likely to continue growing. Judging by what folks were saying on Monday night, it will be impossible for the government to mollify the strikers without wiping out their debts and shifting that repayment burden onto the people who profited from Corinthian’s operations. A CFPB spokesperson declined to discuss the meeting on Tuesday morning, citing the agency’s ongoing lawsuit against Corinthian for its consumer abuses.
On Monday, Pamela Hunt offered a preview of the kinds of questions officials might face Tuesday at CFPB headquarters. “What do you tell your kids when you can’t keep a decent roof over your head?” she said. “When you’ve gotta move to the slums, you’ve gotta go to the food pantry, because you can’t get a job that’ll support your kids?”