The Special Master Feels Your Pain: For-profit College Students Demand Debt Cancellation in D.C.


It is a rare occasion when policy elites sit across the table from those whose lives are affected by their decisions. Last week, I participated in just such an event when I accompanied a group of student debt strikers and defrauded former for-profit college students to a meeting in Washington D.C. with a man who has the power to cancel their loans and alleviate their suffering.

Joseph A. Smith is the “Borrower Defense Special Master” (yes, the acronym is BDSM) for the U.S. Department of Education. Formerly the federal monitor for the National Mortgage Settlement (a program that was criticized for severely limiting the number of homeowners who actually received promised relief), Smith was appointed BDSM in June after 200 hundred former for-profit students went on strike and thousands more disputed their loans through a little-known provision in the Higher Education Act called “Defense to Repayment.”

Most of the students had attended Corinthian, which enrolled hundreds of thousands of people over the years. It promised them high-paying jobs and brand-new lives and delivered little more than dashed dreams and a lifetime of unpayable debt. After raking in billions in taxpayer dollars and delivering windfall profits to wealthy investors for almost two decades, the company declared bankruptcy last year. Students, however, are stuck with their debt.

The meeting between defrauded borrowers and Smith was an unusual occasion inside the halls of power. The Department of Education is the federal agency that regulates colleges and universities. The Secretary is a cabinet-level appointee and, with 5,000 employees and a budget of around $70 billion, the Department is charged with ensuring that students receive an education worthy of the name. The agency’s dereliction of duty began years ago. During the same decade when President Bill Clinton was ramping up efforts to deregulate the financial industry as a whole, Congress authorized for-profit colleges to generate up to 90% of their revenue from federal student loans. For the last 25 years, the Department has funneled billions into hundreds of schools set up with the explicit goal of providing big profits to financial firms like Goldman Sachs (a former owner of for-profit operator, EDMC) and Wells Fargo (the largest investor in Corinthian).

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Obama Should Cancel Defrauded Students’ Debts Already

Throughout the primary, the leading candidates for the Democratic Party’s nomination have promised to take action on the $1.3 trillion student debt crisis. These calls have been echoed by President Barack Obama himself, who declared in his final State of the Union address that “no hardworking student should be stuck in the red” and called on Congress to make college more affordable.

He’s right that student debt is a debilitating burden for millions of students and their families. But Obama also has the unilateral authority to help those students now by canceling the student loans of those who attended predatory for-profit colleges. He just has to use it.

On February 17, members of the Obama administration, a representative of the for-profit college industry and borrower advocates are scheduled to gather for three days of high-stakes talks about whether defrauded students are eligible for debt relief. This process has been unnecessarily delayed for months, hurting students along the way. Now it is time for the White House to prove that it seriously wants to address the student debt crisis.

Read the rest of this editorial in Politico.

Lady Adjuncts of the Apocalypse

Seventy-five percent of college teachers now work on short-term and/or part-time contracts, prompting Frank Donoghue to call the current generation of tenured scholars the “last professors.” As a part-time college instructor, I taught alongside many such curiosities. I often wondered how they understood the inequality that surrounded them. How did they explain the fact that people who had the same degrees and taught the same classes as they did were paid so little and treated so poorly? A few years ago, when I was teaching English at a large public college in New York City, a tenured colleague suggested an answer. I was in her office to collect an observation report that she had written about my Freshman Composition class. “I was an adjunct once too,” she said, as if sharing a secret. “We’re a sisterhood, you know.”

A sisterhood? This was certainly a new take on the old adage of teaching as a noble calling, especially considering the dominant image of a professor is still a middle-aged man in a tweed jacket. I found myself speechless in response. Why would someone with a lifetime job who taught everyday alongside low-wage teachers with no promise of continued employment assume that she and I were jointly part of anything? It seemed to me that thinking about me as her sister was a way of not thinking about me as a severely underpaid colleague. But how had gender come to win out over economics as a framework for understanding our institutional relation?

We can start to answer the question by expanding the frame and examining the disparity in college degree completion between men and women. Since the 1990s, women have been completing college at higher rates than men. This is true for women in all income groups and for white women as well as for black women and Latinas. Simply put, there are more women in college now than ever before, and that trend shows no sign of slowing down.

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The ‘College Scorecard’: Tall Tales and Confidence Men in the Age of Austerity

In this week’s radio address, the President illustrated how committed the elite political class is to promoting delusional ideas at all costs.

The President took the opportunity to celebrate the release of the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, a website that allows students and parents to “find clear, reliable, open data on college affordability and value – like whether they’re likely to graduate, find good jobs, and pay off their loans.” On the surface, this doesn’t sound like a bad thing. But if you think colleges ought to serve all students, the implications are pretty terrible. For instance, schools that enroll lots of low-income people or first-generation students are going to look pretty bad according to the Scorecard rankings. The desire to improve their ranking might lead colleges to stop enrolling students that bring down the numbers.

But the President and the neoliberal robots at the Department of Education are so committed to promoting education as a consumer good and to treating rising defaults as an information problem, that they don’t care who pays the price.

It is important that people can access data about college outcomes, the President said, because “some higher education is the surest ticket to the middle class.”

This assertion is a key part of one of the tallest tales of the last hundred years: that college degrees produce economic gains for individuals. In other words, no matter the state of the job market or the broader economy, proponents of the “college premium” insist that a degree is a magic pill that cures all economic ills.

It’s not surprising that the administration is trotting out the argument at this juncture in history. The President and the Democrats are under pressure to deal with the problem of student loans and the rising cost of college. Forty million Americans are in debt for education, to the tune of $1.3 trillion. Seven million debtors are in default, and that number rises every year.

Unfortunately, politicians have no interest in real solutions. To people struggling to get by, the only thing elites have to offer is education. They have been beating that drum so hard, especially since 2008, that they’re beginning to sound a little hysterical.

The ‘college premium’ is quackery of the first order. The President has become our Snake-Oil-Salesman-in-Chief, whether he actually believes what he’s saying or not. Let’s examine two other assertions from the radio address.

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Cancel All Corinthian Colleges Student Debt (with Astra Taylor)

This op-ed was published in the Los Angeles Times on June 23, 2015. During fact-checking, the editor added a phrase that my co-author and I did not write and would not have approved. We did not catch the addition in time. I am posting the correct version here.


In February, 15 students who had attended Corinthian Colleges Inc. launched the nation’s first student debt strike. The students declared that they would no longer repay their loans on the grounds that Corinthian — a network of for-profit schools including Everest, Heald and WyoTech — had used fraudulent marketing and recruitment practices and that the credits and degrees they earned were worthless. Soon the Corinthian 15 became the Corinthian 100, and the 200. Groups such as the American Federation of Teachers and Jobs With Justice endorsed their cause.

Corinthian filed for bankruptcy in May, and the Department of Education has now announced a plan to cancel the debt of some former Corinthian students.

This is a significant victory for the strikers. It shows that the tactic of debt refusal, when strategically deployed, can get results. But the department hasn’t done nearly as much as it could, or should, to set things right.

When Education Secretary Arne Duncan revealed the debt relief plan, he blasted schools such as Corinthian for bringing “the ethics of payday lending into higher education.” These schools, Duncan said, “prey on the most vulnerable students and leave them with debt that they too often can’t repay.” Indeed, a third of Corinthian students came from families that earned less than $10,000 per year.

A close look at the fine print, however, reveals that Duncan and his staff are presenting a stopgap measure as a meaningful solution. Instead of issuing a blanket discharge to all former Corinthian students, the department offers a byzantine process that will likely leave out many students.

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