Every day, people who struggled to finance their educational advancement slip deeper into a financial mudslide on a mountain of student debt. For borrowers who collectively hold this burden of about $1 trillion nationwide, the student loan has become a ball and chain that restrains them from starting their careers, or even paying rent, as their wages are sucked into a financial vortex. But what if you just decided to not write that check this month? A small group of people have chosen to do just that, hoping to start a movement to break out of the debt cycle—or at least to bang against the walls of student-debtor’s prison.
The debt strike, which launched Monday as part of the Debt Collective campaign, is led by the Corinthian Fifteen, former students of Everest College—part of the scandal-ridden for-profit Corinthian college chain. They’re undertaking financial civil disobedience against the private lending industry, demanding cancellation of federal student debts and voicing dissatisfaction with piecemeal debt relief programs. The actual financial impact of their campaign is negligible, but for the former students, this collective action is a way for them to reassert their economic sovereignty:
We paid dearly for degrees that have led to unemployment or to jobs that don’t pay a living wage. We can’t and won’t pay any longer. Repayment plans presented as a helping hand simply aren’t good enough. The wrong done to us is deeper than that.
Ann Bowers of Florida was drawn in by Corinthian’s Trojan Horse marketing, which convinced her that she could readily obtain an online degree to help restart her career in marketing, after years of being out of the workforce due to disability. But in exchange for a bloated federal loan burden of some $40,000, she received an anemic education—with coursework that was more like high school than college and classmates struggling with even the basics.
“It just didn’t feel like it was challenging enough and the other students were getting on through without even having proper grammar,” she tells The Nation. “That just didn’t seem very scholarly to me.”
Bowers withdrew after three years, as Corinthian’s financial troubles were intensifying, she says. “And now I find myself sitting in worse shape than I’ve ever been in my life, because I tried to do better and [do] something good for myself and my family…. And I don’t want to see this happen to future generations. It’s sad.”
While fifteen debt resisters will not upend the private loan system or the financial markets they fuel, their defiance aims to expose structural problems driving the financialization of higher education. Since their debt crisis is exacerbated by Corinthian’s apparent massive cheating of students, they’re sparking a national conversation on the real value—and true cost—of college.