Students who attended predatory for-profit colleges protested in front of two Illinois for-profit colleges this week. Activists told ThinkProgress they are protesting to expose corruption at for-profit colleges and bring attention to the issue of rising student debt.
The protesters gathered at the Illinois Institute of Art — Schaumburg, as well as The Illinois Institute of Art — Chicago at noon local time on Wednesday and Thursday to march in opposition to the “student debt crisis,” to raise awareness with students, to demand accountability from the schools, and to tell the Department of Education that they want loan cancellation. A number of students who did not attend these schools also attended to protest rising student debt in the country. According to activists who spoke to ThinkProgress before the event, an estimated 50 people were in attendance at the suburban Schaumburg campus and 100 or more people rallied at the Chicago campus.
Jenny Lezan, who attended both the Illinois Institute of Art — Schaumburg and Illinois Institute of Art — Chicago from 2004 to 2008, told ThinkProgress ahead of the protests that, “We have to get involved locally to see changes and demand our politicians, our senators, our Congressmen listen to us … Because they are so disconnected from the realities of what working class Americans like us are facing on a daily basis.”
Lezan said students who attended these colleges are “angry, they’re upset. And they want answers.”
“They’re angry. They’re upset. And they want answers.”
Over the past few years, Education Management Corp. (EDMC), the for-profit college company that owned the Art Institute campuses, was hit with a number of investigations and lawsuits. The company agreed to a $95.5 million settlement with the Justice Department in 2015 after it was accused of violating federal and state False Claims Act provisions by falsely claiming that it complied with Title IV of the Higher Education Act, which relates to federal financial aid funds. In 2015, EDMC also closed 15 of its campuses. That same year, students who attended these colleges told ThinkProgress that the schools gave them poor quality of education in their fields and left them with massive debt with minimal career prospects.
Protesting outside the Schaumburg campus pic.twitter.com/hfVMLNSLR8
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Last year, EDMC sold 31 Art Institute schools to the Dream Center Foundation for $60 million. The Department of Education approved the sale to the organization, which is connected to a Pentecostal church and did not specialize in handling higher education issues. During the Obama administration, the Dream Center sought to purchase ITT Tech to turn the technical school into a nonprofit organization, but Obama officials did not approve the sale.
“We weren’t going to let somebody who had never run a school come in and run ITT,” a former education official told BuzzFeed News last year.
After the sale in 2017, the Higher Learning Commission, a college accreditor, moved a number of campuses, including the Art Institute campuses at Michigan, Colorado, and Illinois campuses at Schaumburg and Chicago from an accredited status to a candidacy status. For students, this means that the credits they recently earned would be downgraded. The Higher Learning Commission gave the Illinois Institute of Art — Chicago candidacy status on January 20 and informed students about the change in June — a move that activists say took much too long.
We will be marching today at noon in Schaumburg IL and Thursday at noon in downtown Chicago IL #resist #ProtestAction #StudentDebt #WeAreNotALOAN @usdeptofed @SenSanders @Ocasio2018 @StudentLegalNet @SenatorDurbin pic.twitter.com/g9cS4aInvI
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“Now we have thousands of students who graduated in June and had no clue that their school wasn’t going to be accredited because the school lost accreditation as of January,” Lezan said. “They knew they had the risk of losing accreditation and they never brought that to light to students.”
“The school does not have their best interest at heart.”
“We want to help current students understand that they should not sign anything,” Schneider told ThinkProgress in an email. “They need to fight for debt cancellation.”
She added, “The school does not have their best interest at heart. They need to also know they are not alone (or a loan) and that there are people on their side who don’t want them to be further scammed in this situation.”
Many for-profit colleges like the Art Institutes tend to target low-income people, who bring in more federal financial aid. When asked why tuition is so high at these for-profit colleges, Tressie McMillan Cottom, author of Lower Ed, explained to NPR, “if you’re a financialized organization or a corporate shareholder-owned, for-profit college that relies on tuition growth to generate your profit, the only way you can do that is to keep increasing costs. So they tend to peg the tuition costs to the fully allowable amount that students are allowed to borrow from the federal student aid program.”
Lezan said that as a Latina and first-generation college student who grew up in inner city Chicago, she thought going to school was a chance to escape poverty.
“My mother dropped out of high school because she had me really early but she told me, ‘Jenny, finish high school and go to college. It’s going to help break the cycle of poverty,'” she said. “I thought I was making a financial decision that was going to help me break free of poverty. Here I am, 10 years later, and I’m barely out of debt. And I’m probably worse off than my mother who didn’t go to school.”
Lezan said she’s fighting for her children as well, particularly her 11 year-old daughter who will be going to college in seven years. She said she doesn’t want her to have this student loan debt.
“If we can make changes and create a ruckus enough to start fighting for reforms to pass, then that’s going to help for the future,” Lezan said. “I’m a proponent for education and I believe knowledge is transformative, but for people to treat this as if it’s something only the elite should have … education should be a right.”
“I thought I was making a financial decision that was going to help me break free of poverty. Here I am, 10 years later, and I’m barely out of debt.”
Under the Trump administration, the Education Department has rolled back or delayed a number of rules that would benefit people with student debt, particularly people who attended for-profit colleges. The department recently dismantled the team responsible for investigating for-profit colleges.
During the Obama administration, student debt activists, including for-profit college students, demanded that the administration explicitly apply a 1990s rule on borrower defense to repayment — a vaguely-worded type of loan forgiveness that allows borrowers to get debt relief if their college committed fraud — to situations in which students were defrauded by their schools and wanted their debt forgiven. After years of activism, the department finally developed an approach that would allow this for many defrauded students. Under the Trump administration, however, people with student debt from for-profit colleges are dealing with ongoing efforts to dismantle the few protections they recently gained.
But student debt from for-profit colleges is not the only problem and activists say they want people to organize around the issue of student debt in general. Student debt is much more burdensome that other kinds of debt, such as auto and housing debt, which are easier to get out of. According to a Brookings Institution report, the default rate for those who took out student loans in 2004 will climb to almost 40 percent by 2023. The debt and default rate is also at “crisis levels” for Black college graduates.