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Kamala Harris talking about student debt

Vice President Kamala Harris, with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, speaks at the Department of Education in Washington, DC, on June 2, 2022 as the pair announced the Department's plan to cancel all remaining federal student loans for borrowers who attended schools operated by Corinthian Colleges, formerly one of the largest for-profit education companies. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

If Corinthian Student Debt Can Be Wiped Out—All of It Can

The entire system is predatory. Backed by the Department of Education, it has pushed millions of us into a debt trap while Wall Street profited.

Ashley Pizzuti

I'm incredibly happy to hear the announcement that debt is being wiped out for defrauded Corinthian students. This should have happened in 2015 when this predatory school folded. Instead, it took almost a decade of vigorous grassroots organizing and legal maneuvering for borrowers to be relieved of crushing debt for worthless degrees.

This news is bittersweet. Those of us who attended other 'bad actor' schools are struggling, still waiting for relief. Even those with good paying jobs are often ten of thousands—or even hundreds of thousands of dollars—in debt, leaving them unable to purchase homes or revisit legitimate educational opportunities. It only gets worse from there.

If the debt for Corinthian students can be wiped out, all debt for Brooks students and other for-profit schools should and must be automatically and immediately eliminated too.

Twenty years ago this September, I enrolled at Brooks Institute in Ventura, CA, then owned by Career Education Corporation (CEC rebranded as Perdoceo after a 2019 settlement with 49 State Attorneys General).

The school is where I met my husband, but it was mired in controversy by the time I graduated with a BA in visual journalism. The school brushed it off. An undercover investigation in 2005 by the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education stated "The Bureau has determined that an unconditional grant of approval to operate is not in the public interest."

CEC disputed the investigation and it was thrown out on a technicality. Years later, I discovered Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was a major investor in CEC and that her husband, Richard Blum, was a majority owner of both CEC and ITT. She used her lawmaking powers to influence deregulation of both the for-profit and student loan industries. She is the fourth-wealthiest senator in office, but that wealth is built off the backs of borrowers who attended one of her husband's predatory schools. Instead of protecting taxpayers, Congress was sending federal student aid to a school committing fraud that one member of Congress personally invested in. Yet here we are, still holding the bag.

Within a few years of graduating, and after being misled about forbearance, my household's mix of federal and high interest private student loans ballooned to half a million dollars. We were lied to about accreditation, being told credits would transfer to state schools. The job placement they promised was a joke. The best we could get were low-paying retail studio jobs. This is equivalent to a fast food job after I was promised "You could walk into National Geographic and get a job with Brooks on your resume" to justify the high cost of attendance.

In 2009 we were notified of a class action against CEC/Brooks for misleading its students. CEC settled the case without admitting any wrongdoing. My husband and I both received a check for $1200; but it didn't even cover a full month of student loan payments and stripped us of our right to take legal action in the future.

I have spent the last decade trying to figure out how this was allowed to happen. Aren't schools and government regulators supposed to have young students' best interests at heart? I connected over 2000 other borrowers from Brooks. I've gathered loan data from many of them and asked them to share how these loans have affected their lives over the long term. So far, I have interviewed 489 Brooks Borrowers who collectively hold well over $70 Million in student loan debt. There were approximately 22,000 students enrolled at Brooks during CEC's 16 years of ownership.

So far litigation hasn't helped. After Donald Trump's Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos intentionally derailed the process, a 2020 class action suit, with a named plaintiff who attended Brooks, was filed to force the Department of Education to resume the lawful processing of issuing relief to defrauded borrowers through the same process former students of Corinthian Colleges have used to get relief. Hundreds of thousands of defrauded borrowers from bad actors like ITT and the Art Institute, among others, are still waiting.

The ripples this debt has caused are deep and wide. This debt doesn't just affect the borrowers. Parents who cosigned or took out Parent Plus loans can't afford to retire. Relationships between cosigners and borrowers have become estranged. Due to shoddy accreditation practices, going back to school means starting over from scratch because credits do not transfer and most students maxed out student's loan eligibility, including GI benefits.

Many borrowers have faced housing and food insecurity. For most, their credit has been destroyed, they have difficulty renting, obtaining credit cards, or making any kind of purchase or signing a lease if a credit check is required. Some borrowers have decided they can't marry or have children due to their insurmountable debt. Those that have, struggle with passing down the generational trauma that comes with the shame of being scammed and left financially destitute. This debt is toxic and the Department of Education is liable.

We are facing midlife and retirement age with no savings or safety-net and inflation at our backs. We have been waiting years for relief. But federal loan cancellation will not be the end of our troubles, or our fight. Many of us have private loans, and while a few have seen relief through the Navient Settlement brought on by 39 state attorney general offices, which named CEC/Brooks as a bad actor, only a handful fit the small window of criteria for forgiveness.

If the debt for Corinthian students can be wiped out, all debt for Brooks students and other for-profit schools should and must be automatically and immediately eliminated too. In fact, all student debt should be erased no matter what school people attended. Our entire system is predatory and needs to be rebuilt. For decades, the Department of Education has pushed millions of us into a debt trap while Wall Street profited. Making students whole is the least they can do.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Ashley Pizzuti

Ashley Pizzuti

Ashley Pizzuti has been advocating and organizing for-profit borrowers from Brooks Institute and beyond. For more information on her mission please visit brooksborrowers.org

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