I am drowning in more than $120,000 of student debt after being defrauded by a for-profit college, and I refuse to wait for relief from the Trump administration.
That’s why I am going on the offense and suing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. More than 158,000 other former students are doing the same. Many have been waiting more than two years for the department to cancel their debts under a law called Defense to Repayment (DTR), which requires debt discharges for scammed students.
Recently, nearly 900 of us submitted testimony in the case. While it is now widely known that student debt has reached crisis levels, statements from former students reveal the specific impact that student debt, particularly debt from predatory schools, has on people’s lives.
A survey of the defrauded students found that 96% feel their lives are worse off now than before they went to school. Nearly half have put off getting married and having children because of debt. Student debt is a national crisis, with more than 44 million people together owing $1.5 trillion, but these testimonies provide even more evidence of the suffering that former for-profit college students experience.
In 2007, I enrolled in the Illinois Institute of Art in Schaumburg, Illinois, to earn my bachelor’s in fine arts. Now I’m not sure I will ever be able to repay my more than six-figure debt. My credit is ruined. Before I filed my application for DTR and my loans were placed into forbearance, debt collectors would call me as many as 10 times a day at all hours. They even called my recently deceased grandmother as well as other members of my family, none of whom are listed on my loan documents.
The worst part is the effect that this debt has had on my family. My children have never known a life free from debt and all the anxiety that it causes. My 59-year-old mother holds some of my loans via the Parent Plus loan program. That means that until these loans are canceled, she cannot retire. This debt has already affected three generations of my family.
To add insult to injury, I received a worthless degree from the school I attended. The quality of the education was dismal. Students had to learn from free online tutorials and YouTube videos. Instructors would frequently be late or absent, and many classes covered the same content under a different name. During my enrollment, the school engaged in fraud, which was later revealed in an $11 billion whistleblower lawsuit. Recruiters showed prospective students falsified career placement statistics and offered inflated salary numbers. They also lied about the equipment and facilities that would be available to students.
“This debt has already affected three generations of my family.”
While I struggle every day with this debt, I am also convinced that debtors can win relief if we band together. DTR is the provision in the Higher Education Act that established rules for college financial aid programs. It was made public a few years ago by borrowers who had attended Corinthian, a chain of for-profit colleges that had been under investigation for scamming students since 2007.
The Obama administration eventually agreed that predatory loans should be canceled under the law. In fact, 28,000 people saw their loans disappear in the first mass student debt cancellation in US history. But Obama’s Department of Education did not finish the job.
Soon after her appointment by President Donald Trump, DeVos stopped processing borrower defense claims. Not a single loan has been canceled for more than a year. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked DeVos about the delay in a congressional hearing, and she seemed to blame students for being defrauded! “There are bad actors,” she testified, “on both sides of the equation.”
That is why I and my fellow borrowers will force America’s billionaire education secretary to finally follow the law. In the final accounting, we are fighting for more than just debt relief. We are organizing for the right to a true education that doesn’t put us in debt. To win that battle, we know that we must stand together and refuse to be silent.
This article was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Based in Chicago, Ami is an organizer with the Debt Collective. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Art Institute.