Shortly before he left office, President Barack Obama approved a plan that would fully erase the debts of tens of thousands of students who attended for-profit colleges that boasted fraudulent claims. Like most things post-Obama, it’s been complicated ever since. In this case because, around Christmas, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced an intricate partial-debt-relief plan for such students — basically, the amount of debt they could have erased would be based on the average income of people with their same degree (business administration, nursing, etc.). To make sense of it all, we spoke with Nathan Hornes, one of the people who helped start the student-debt strike that led to this forgiveness program — and a guy who continues to refuse to pay back the $68,000 he owes in federal student loans.
I went to a for-profit college in L.A. called Everest College, which was part of a chain called Corinthian Colleges. I wanted to go to school for business. And I did — I just went to a really crappy school that basically lies to you about everything.
It all started back in 2010. I was sitting on the sofa, watching Maury or Jerry Springer, when an Everest commercial came on. I’d seen those ads many times before, but that time, I picked up the phone and called for more information. I also checked out the website. It talked about how you could still go to school even if you had a job or had to take care of kids. I liked that. It meant I could go to school and still pursue the music career I’d moved to California for a few years earlier.
I took my sister along for a tour. When we got to the school, the financial adviser told us that since it was late in the day, I had to sign up that day or else I’d have to wait another six months. They made it seem like such a time crunch. My sister, who was just along for support, decided to sign up, too. It was fast and awkward. We weren’t really reading anything. They were just pushing papers in front of us, talking about how we got approved for financial aid and that grants and scholarships were gonna cover it.
As for school, there were certain teachers who would have us play board games instead of taking midterms and finals. We played Monopoly in two classes of mine: Microeconomics and Intro to Human Resources. Or we’d go to Dave & Buster’s and drink together. That would be our two hours of class. In my literature class, instead of reading The Great Gatsby, we walked to the theater across the street and saw the movie. Sometimes we were given college-level stuff, but other times, certain students were basically working on a coloring book. I’m not even joking.
That said, there were several classes I can definitely say were good classes — like finance and all the accounting classes I took. I worked my butt off to get the grades I got. I didn’t graduate with a 3.9 GPA for nothing. I worked for it. There also were classes that I can honestly say that I use in my daily life and still appreciate today. But the majority of it was stuff that was common sense. It was like, “Why am I taking this class? I learned this in ninth grade.”
Right before I graduated, I started applying for jobs. I showed up to an interview at a Wells Fargo branch, and I’ll never forget it: The manager sat me down and told me that he didn’t want to hire me — he just wanted to see what it looked like to have an Everest student come through his doors. Then he said he’d never hire somebody that went to a for-profit college. I was so embarrassed. After that, I never put the name of the college I went to on my resume; I just put, “I went to college and these are the years I went.”
Another thing Everest promised us was a network of employers. It was in the brochures and everything. But their network consisted of ads from Craigslist, Monster or Indeed. This was all stuff we could do ourselves. It was pathetic.
I had a friend named Ben who worked at the school, but they fired him the day I graduated. He stood outside with a sign, picketing. That was when I started to protest, too. Me, him and three other people got together and started organizing. We reached out on social media to people we knew who had either graduated or were still in school, and asked them to meet at a coffee shop every couple of weeks. At the same time, there was a librarian at another Everest who became a whistleblower when she quit her job in protest after coming across a student in his 30s who was reading at a third-grade level.
Within a year, Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street that evolved into The Debt Collective, helped us and a few others from Corinthian Colleges around the nation start the first student-debt strike in national history.
That’s when I officially stopped paying any of my student loans.
We each knew the things that came with going into default: bad credit and not being able to buy a car, a house or even a cell phone. But we knew we were doing something powerful, and we knew we had to do whatever necessary to let our government know that we weren’t gonna roll over and allow them to play us for fools. Still, Everest wouldn’t let us walk at graduation unless we signed an agreement saying we wouldn’t sue them in a class-action suit if they couldn’t get us a job. I signed it because I wanted to walk across that stage and give my parents something to be proud of.
Eventually, Debt Collective arranged for us to meet with Ted Mitchell, the Undersecretary for the Department of Education, as well as 11 attorney generals. We asked them to discharge our student loans because our school was committing fraud. We were all concerned that they’d treat us like that manager at Wells Fargo had treated me, but they seemed to listen to what we had to say.
There’s a law called Defense to Repayment that allows for debt forgiveness for federal student loans if the school misled the student or engaged in misconduct. But there was never even a form to fill out to do so until we created one. Overall, the government has made it complicated to get our money back. It’s ridiculous. They wouldn’t do a blanket discharge and forgive everyone at once. And whenever you check on your repayment status, they’ll email you saying they’re still trying to figure it out. Then they ask if you want to be put in administrative forbearance — that’s where they freeze your loan so you don’t have to pay for it, but they still collect interest.
Meanwhile, I worked at Smashburger as a manager after I graduated in 2014, but our checks kept bouncing. Next, I went to work for a family-owned frozen yogurt shop, but they couldn’t afford to pay me what I deserved to be their store manager. I cannot live on $13 an hour in California — I couldn’t even pay my rent.
Now I’m back in my home state of Missouri, though still in the food industry. I’m supposed to be trained to be a manager at the new place I work at, but I don’t wanna keep doing these dead-end jobs where I can barely survive. You’d never know that I went to a college and got a degree in business. On a scale of 1 to 10, my stress level is a 25.
The day I signed up for Everest, they said my tuition was going to be covered by grants and scholarships. But they were signing us up for fake scholarships that didn’t exist. They even signed us up for loans that we had no idea about, with a PIN number we created at the very beginning. When I got my bachelor’s degree, I looked at my enrollment agreement and saw that it was signed by somebody else — in my name — with female handwriting.
Last year, I received a discharge of my student loans with a group of others. Both the Department of Education and Navient, the loan servicers, sent me letters stating that my loans had been forgiven for the full amount, but due to the new rules by Betsy DeVos, the certainty of my loans being discharged is still up in the air.
Needless to say, my advice is, don’t go to a for-profit college. Ever. They need to be shut down completely. They go after vulnerable people who actually want to improve their lives. They say it in their own words — they said on their website that they go after single mothers, minorities and Army veterans. Our Army vets would spend their G.I. Bill money to go to this school. My dad was in the military, and it breaks my heart to know that these colleges are taking from somebody who fought for them to be able to do what they’re doing.
Why would they do that? It’s awful.
—As told to Adam Elder