American student loan debt has risen to $1.2 trillion, dwarfing the nation's credit card debt and posing an existential threat to the financial future of the more than 7 million people currently in default over their student loan debt. Now, 15 of those indebted former students are taking their grievances with a broken system all the way to the top.
The students refer to themselves as the "Corinthian 15" after Corinthian Colleges, a now-defunct for-profit education company that once enrolled more than 100,000 students. After lawsuits from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the state of California, the school agreed to shutter many of its schools and sell the rest, but its students' debt has outlived the school. Although the CFPB has negotiated forgiveness of part of the debt Corinthian's graduates and former students owed, they still owe millions to repay federal student loans.
The Corinthian 15 are a group of these students who created DebtCollective.org, a site advocating a debt strike and featuring a letter the former students wrote to the Department of Education in a bid for nationwide student loan forgiveness. The Corinthian 15 describe themselves as "people living paycheck to paycheck, single mothers and young people just starting out," who "paid dearly for degrees that have led to unemployment or to jobs that don't pay a living wage."
Here's the full letter:
To the Department of Education:
Who are we? We are the first generation made poor by the business of education.
We are people living paycheck to paycheck, single mothers and young people just starting out. We wanted an education because we were driven to learn and to achieve a better life for ourselves and for our families.
We trusted that education would lead to a better life. And we trusted you to ensure that the education system in this country would do so. But Corinthian took advantage of our dreams and targeted us to make a profit. You let it happen, and now you cash in.
Each month you force us to make payments into an immoral system that profits from our aspirations.
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. We are not alone in this fight. Corinthian's predatory empire pushed hundreds of thousands into a debt trap. But even beyond for-profit schools, tens of millions of students are in more debt than they can ever repay. And you are the debt collector, with powers beyond a payday lender's wildest dreams.
To the Department of Education and to the lenders, servicers and guarantee agencies who have stolen our futures, we say: enough! Erase these loans.
To current and former college students across the country, we say: We stand with you to demand the end of a higher education system that profits from all our dreams. Join our fight.
We won't pay. We are the Corinthian 15,
A desperate measure, but a necessary one: The government support of higher education through federal student loans with the Higher Education Act of 1965 was a victory for the middle class. Post-secondary education, formerly a privilege only enjoyed by the wealthy, became an entitlement for the middle class.
But with that access has come ballooning debt. Colleges and universities, smelling easy money, have increased tuition at a rate higher than inflation, medical costs and the cost of living. Forty-five percent (paywall) of 25-year-olds are in debt due to student loans, a 20% rise over just the past decade. The debt does more than just hurt millennial wallets: According to the latest edition of Social Science & Medicine, high levels of student debt can lead to depression and stress.
The Department of Education has yet to release a response to the letter, but the Corinthian 15 aren't waiting for a government reaction to begin their student revolution. On the DebtCollective.org's "Action Alert!" page, the Corinthian 15 make their goals clear: "If you owe the bank a thousand dollars, the bank owns you. If you owe the bank a trillion dollars, you own the bank. Together, we own the bank."