On Wednesday, former students of ITT Technical Institutes — the predatory for-profit college that announced its closure earlier this month after receiving sanctions from the U.S. Department of Education — announced that they refuse to pay their student loans. This action is referred to as a “debt strike” and 108 students are participating so far.
More than 1,500 former ITT students organizing with the Debt Collective, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, have submitted defense to repayment applications to get their student loans discharged, a decision separate from the debt strike.
The Debt Collective also worked with students of colleges run by the for-profit college chain Corinthian Colleges when they went on a similar debt strike last year. In 2014, the group canceled $4 million in private student loans taken out by for-profit college students by spending $100,000 to purchase the debt owed to Corinthian Colleges.
In a letter to President Barack Obama and U.S. Department of Education Secretary John King, the strikers wrote, “By striking our debts we begin to collect on your obligation to erase them.”
ITT Technical Institutes have been under media and political scrutiny for years for delivering low-quality education to students, convincing students to take on predatory private loans with high interest rates, and providing students with misleading job placement rates. But the department’s decision to prevent the schools from enrolling any students who require federal financial aid to attend finally pushed ITT Educational Services to shut down all of its schools earlier this month.
“By striking our debts we begin to collect on your obligation to erase them.”
Christina Hammond, who organized with the Debt Collective and created the Facebook page ITT Tech Warriors, attended ITT Technical Institute-Canton in Michigan from 2006 to 2013 as she worked part-time. Hammond said the classes didn’t challenge her and that one instructor let a student get away with plagiarism. Although she began to have her doubts about the school’s legitimacy, she had already spent so much time at the school that she continued to attend, pursuing an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree.
“I felt like I had no options, and I was really passionate. I don’t think I’m a quitter with anything,” Hammond said.
After taking out private loans with high interest rates, she now has about $80,000 in student debt — half of which is made up of private loans. But Hammond said she is hopeful that ITT students like her will receive loan forgiveness.
“Collective action does work. When the housing market crashed, if people organized, things may have been much different. Labor movements work. Movements work,” Hammond said. “I’m going to keep pushing people and educating people and helping people find the resources that the Department of Education should have been giving to people in the first place.”
“Collective action does work.”
Indeed, the Debt Collective’s efforts to bring attention to student debt issues have been very successful thus far, considering how slowly the department was moving on the issue of forgiving student debt before the group’s organizing gained extensive media coverage a couple years ago.
Before the group’s efforts, the issue of for-profit college students being scammed out of a quality education and being saddled with debt from both federal and private loans had relatively low visibility. But this media coverage may have pushed the department to work on the issue with greater urgency. The department’s borrower defense to repayment option has existed since the 1990s, but it was considered an obscure rule and only gained national attention after the group asserted that students who attended for-profit colleges should be able to use the rule to seek student loan forgiveness.
This activism is beginning to pay off in big ways. In June, the Department of Education announced debt relief for 11,173 students who went to Everest, Heald and Wyotech, part of the Corinthian Colleges chain. The department said it will work with attorneys general to contact contact students of these schools who are eligible for borrower defense to repayment.
Students who were attending ITT Technical Institutes schools, as well as students who already graduated or left the schools, have several options now that the campuses have shuttered.
Current ITT students can apply for a closed school discharge or attempt to transfer their credits to colleges that will accept them, in which case they will probably not be eligible for any kind of federal student loan forgiveness. Students who already graduated from these schools should submit borrower defense claims and stay tuned to see what the department may do next regarding debt forgiveness for ITT students. Current and former ITT students can find more resources at the website Higher Ed Not Debt.
Hammond urged current students not to risk losing an opportunity at student loan forgiveness to transfer their credits to a new school.
“You don’t want to be blackballed and you don’t want people to think of you differently because you attended the school, so all the way around it’s a better deal,” Hammond said. “I know a lot of people don’t want to lose two or four years of their life. I did seven years part time and if I could get that wiped out and start at a real school with legitimate credentials and get a real education, I would in a heartbeat.”