Tuesday, October 18, 2022

I Went on Strike to Cancel My Student Debt and Won. Every Debtor Deserves the Same. (Ann Bowers*)

Image of Ann Bowers, courtesy of the Debt Collective

[Note:  This article originally appeared in In These Times on June 2, 2022.  The Higher Education Inquirer is now working with Ann Bowers and the Debt Collective to restore GI Bill benefits to veterans preyed upon by for-profit colleges.]

This week, former students of Corinthian Colleges — a predatory for-profit school that once boasted more than 100 campuses across the country — received news that their student loans will be canceled. In an announcement, a Department of Education (DOE) press release called the move ​“the largest single loan discharge the Department has made in history.” As a former student of Everest College, which is a branch of Corinthian, I am overjoyed that everyone who attended the scam school will finally be made whole.

The action, announced on June 2, will impact 560,000 former Corinthian students and $5.8 Billion in total student debt will be cancelled. This amounts to a stunning victory for debtors who took collective action to win relief.

But I want to set the record straight. This victory is not the result of the Biden administration’s good will. It is the outcome of a fierce organizing campaign by debtors that has been going on for almost eight years. I should know. I was part of a group of former students that launched a 7-year long student debt strike to win loan cancellation from the federal government.

Now, as President Biden considers cancelling student loan debt more broadly, the outcome for former Corinthian students should send a clear message that the only way to resolve the issue of pernicious student loan debt is to cancel it for everybody and to do so automatically, without making borrowers individually apply.

My involvement started back in 2014 when I read an article that revealed my school was suspected of lying to and defrauding borrowers, many of whom were from low-income families. I was outraged to discover that Corinthian had been under investigation by the U.S. Senate since at least 2010 for breaking the law — all while continuing to receive billions of dollars per year in government funding. Investigators found that Corinthian lied to students about job placement rates, enrolled people who were not prepared for college-level work and offered a sub-par education. The college also provided falsified placement information to accrediting agencies in order to keep federal money flowing. Some of the evidence against Corinthian was compiled by then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who sued the school in 2013 for false advertising.

Furious and determined to fight back, I turned to social media and found that hundreds of former students of my school were gathering online to address the dilemma that we had found ourselves in: huge debts and worthless degrees.

Organizers from the Debt Collective, a union for debtors, had also heard about the plight of Corinthian borrowers and found our group on Facebook. They proposed that everyone who had attended the school join together to pressure the government to cancel our debts. There were few other choices: student debts cannot be erased in bankruptcy except in a few extreme circumstances. Turning our individual burdens into a collective demand was our only option.

In the winter of 2015, a group of former students met in person to plan the campaign. We were all in a similar situation. None of us had been able to find the high-paying jobs that Corinthian had promised, and none of us could afford to pay back the astronomical sums that we owed. We turned our inability to repay into a rallying cry and launched a student debt strike — the first in U.S. history — to demand the cancellation of our loans. We called ourselves the Corinthian Fifteen.

The law was on our side. We relied on an obscure legal mechanism called Borrower Defense to Repayment that required the government to cancel the debts of defrauded students. Since the DOE did not even have an application available to those who wanted to apply for relief, we worked with lawyers to design a form and then made it available on the Debt Collective’s website. By the spring of 2015, applications from former for-profit college students rolled in by the thousands.

Public opinion was also on our side. Our campaign went viral. Dozens of news outlets covered the story of the scammed borrowers who were taking on the Obama administration in March 2015. Strikers met in Washington, D.C. with officials from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Department of Education and the Treasury Department. We shared our experiences of being lied to and defrauded by Corinthian and delivered hundreds of applications for loan relief into the hands of Ted Mitchell, the Undersecretary of Education under President Obama.

Our campaign won the support of major media organizations like the New York Times editorial board and politicians like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Hillary Clinton. As more former for-profit college students realized they had been scammed, our numbers grew. We were joined by students who had attended other predatory schools such as ITT Technical Institutes. Our group of 15 strikers soon grew to 100. Thanks to the Debt Collective, we met with lawyers who helped us understand the consequences of not paying our debts. We knew that defaulted debtors could face wage garnishment and tax offsets. Older borrowers might have their social security benefits garnished. But we were ready for those consequences. Most of us could not afford to pay anyway and were already in default, so the strike was a way to politicize our inability to pay. We stood together for everyone in our situation across the country.

Unfortunately, the Department of Education dragged its feet. Officials claimed they cared about us and wanted to help, but rather than just canceling debts that were shattering lives and ruining futures, they set up a series of administrative processes and claimed they needed to study the issue. Little by little, a few former students who filled out the correct forms and checked the right boxes got their loans relieved. But hundreds of thousands of others waited in anguish.

I was one of the lucky ones. Finally, in 2017, I received an email from the DOE that said my loans were being canceled. My joy was tempered by the fact that thousands of others were still in debt. The news got even worse when President Donald Trump came into office. His Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, halted the relief process that had begun slowly under Obama.

But the fight is far from over, and the stakes are higher than ever.

Back in 2010, when I enrolled at Corinthian, I didn’t know there was such a thing as for-profit education. I assumed that if the government was funding a college, it must be offering a quality education. My experience organizing a debt strike and talking to borrowers who attended colleges of all kinds has taught me that the problem is larger than scam schools. The for-profit college industry is part of a larger system of higher education that often promises the world while failing to deliver for students like me who don’t come from wealthy backgrounds.

Just like former Corinthian students won by turning our individual struggles into a collective demand, I believe we can win even more if student debtors from colleges of all kinds fight back together. We can demand a more fair and just higher education system and an end to the for-profit schools that prey on low-income students.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Modeling civil unrest in the United States: some historical cases (Bryan Alexander*)

[Editor's note: This essay first appeared at BryanAlexander.org on September 6, 2022]

I’ve been modeling potential civil unrest in the US for a while, as some of you know (in terms of polycrisis, neonationalism, recent polls, after Trump, the 2020 election, 2018-2019, the 2016 election, egging on fears, and Sinclair Lewis). One way of doing this futuring work is by drawing on historical examples. History does not repeat, but some relevant  historical events can give us some rough ideas of how insurrections/civil war/rebellions/secession/etc. might play out.  At the least they give us examples to think with.

Today I wanted to offer a group of these examples, drawn from the past few generations, which might be useful.  For each one I’ll offer a very brief introduction, then explore how something similar might play out in the modern American setting.

One caveat: what follows are sketches of history, not serious historiography. Each one is way too short, and you should really dive into each on your own, including in comments. They are samples and summaries to stir your imaginations and investigations.

Another caveat. For these examples/models I assume a few details:

  1. Trump (and DeSantis, the most likely Trump successor now) live and keep doing their thing for at least a few years.
  2. Civil unrest happens, to some degree.
  3. Time horizon: medium term, the next 5 years, or so.

The future can easily invalidate #s 1 and 2.  While Trump often appears in rude health and, in American style, is rich enough to pay for top notch medical care, he also has poor health habits and is nearing 80.  He or DeSantis could, of course, be killed, either in accidents or by the time-honored American tradition of assassination.  As for my second assumption, we haven’t seen much unrest over the past five years, despite my forecasts.  We might not experience anything of the kind – and should hope to be so fortunate.

One last bit of throat-clearing: there are other historical examples we can draw from, especially on the global stage.  I have been working on others, but wanted to get some out there now. I’d love to hear your own historical ideas.


THE YEARS OF LEAD Italy endured a low grade civil conflict starting in the 1960s. Various extreme right and left groups targeted each other, the government, civil society, and civilians with bombings, kidnapping, robberies, and assassinations. The extreme right’s goal was the notorious “strategy of tension“: to scare people with terror enough that they would accept a reactionary government. The left’s strategy: to mobilize the population enough to kick off a left-wing revolution. Both used violence and terror as risky but sometimes successful recruiting tools, as well as for resource-gathering (cf bank robberies). Violence and terror also kept the cycle going by instilling the desire for revenge in survivors, friends, family, and witnesses.

Strage di bologna - By Beppe Briguglio, Patrizia Pulga, Medardo Pedrini, Marco Vaccari - www.stragi.it/, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=301978

The 1980 Bologna railway massacre.

How might this apply to the United States? It is not difficult to foresee some extreme right-wing groups (3%ers, Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, etc) increasing their violent acts and becoming more ambitious. One established American precedent is The Order, a hard-right racist fringe outfit which conducted bank robberies and at least one assassination in the mid-1980s.  Following the Italian example, not to mention the action of some Republicans around the January 6th event, we would envision some politicians allying themselves with these fringe activists to varying degrees of secrecy or openness, for a shared cause and/or mutual benefit.

I’m not sure if there will be any such corresponding action on the extreme left, since so many are wedded to nonviolent action. But we could see such organizing happen if a group feels right-wing dangers are dire enough and if they are willing to obtain the necessary tools.  Perhaps right wing attacks will spur retaliation. Or maybe some will see their struggle as so fundamental to humanity that they must risk extreme action (cf the classic “if you had a time machine, would you travel to the 1920s and murder Hitler?” prompt).

Recall that in the Italian case the activists were very small in number. The Red Brigades numbered a few hundred out of a nation with circa 50 million people. The United States, in contrast, numbers nearly 330 million and is very well supplied with weaponry.

Recall, too, that in Italy’s Years of Lead neither side succeeded in taking over the government, even after kidnapping and killing a former prime minister.

CHINA’S CULTURAL REVOLUTION From 1966 to 1976 political chaos engulfed the People’s Republic of China. Chairman Mao, having lost a great deal of power due to the horrific failure of his Great Leap Forward, launched a political gamble to rebuild his leadership. The story is complex and not easy to summarize, but it took the broad form of a revolution from above, which developed into widespread unrest to the level of civil war.  Mao used national, regional, local, and cultural supporters to provoke political instability while building up a Stalin-level cult of personality.  To do this Mao and his allies ran huge propaganda campaigns, created new political-military units out of teenagers, spurred endless rounds of local political fighting (hence struggle sessions and escalating local violence), and purged leaders across the system, along with preparing the nation for war with the Soviet Union, and more.

China Cultural Revolution Tiananmen 1966_Wikipedia

(I recommend Frank Dik├Âtter’s The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962—1976. The complexity of this story is immense, and its recency means it’s difficult to get perspective and documents.)

How might this play out in the United States?  Obviously the American situation is very different.  Contemporary America is a world leader and is neoliberal in ideology, as opposed to China’s developing nation status during these events, not to mention being a communist state. However, we could imagine a right wing American leader, such as Trump, applying some of Mao’s practices if he wins the 2024 presidential election. Imagine him authorizing various local groups (militias, friendly state governments, local or state police) and federal agencies to go after people he doesn’t like (liberal school boards, tech companies, whatever Trump thinks Antifa is). Trump (or DeSantis) could use federal powers to crack down on anyone he doesn’t like, such as sending troops to deep blue cities, increasing digital surveillance, or denying resources. Trump (or DeSantis) could also follow Mao in urging repeatedly updated political opinions, talking up foreign war to scare people at home, calling out domestic enemies, and generally building up a cult of personality.

Obviously there are limits to this analogy. Trump is no ideologue like Mao was; I’m not sure what a Little Red Book analog might be.  Further, today’s GOP counts economic growth as a major, even leading achievement, while a Cultural Revolution level of chaos would undermine that.

One thing to keep in mind: Mao succeeded, at least in terms of his drive to rebuild his own power. He lived the last years of his life in supreme authority, albeit in declining health, after dismantling some of his support structures.

THE DESTRUCTION OF YUGOSLAVIA In the 1990s this nation tore itself apart, as a nationalist party tried to seize and expand control over the whole republic, and as different sub-nations sought to secede. A powerful national army proved a major power source for the Serb hardliners, as did militias. Republics generated their own forces, including irregular militias. Violence escalated in cycles of vengeance and deliberately inflicted terror. Republics exited the federation while the war grew in complexity and horror.  Other nations intervened, eventually establishing a shaky peace – followed by more conflicts and more unstable settlements.


Bosnia’s Stary Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva River, rebuilt after being shattered in the war.

What vision for American conflict does the destruction of Yugoslavia present?  This is a more extreme model than the first two, but it could play out in several ways. imagine if Trump or DeSantis wins the White House and cracks down much harder than in the Mao model. Such suppression, surveillance, and violence provokes resistance at the state and city level. Democrats/liberals/the left attempt to secede in some way, such as declaring local autonomy from the Republican administration. They could organize self-defense forces at scale. This could spark an escalated federal crackdown. Any violence would drive all sides to further organization and action, and the nation spirals into civil war.

Alternatively, we could imagine the reverse, with a Democratic election victory and the Trump/reactionary right treating the winner as a tyrant. The latter could attempt to secede at the city, state, and/or regional level. They could organizing violence at various levels, from lone activists to militias or suborned local police, aimed against federal forces or locals perceived as aligned with them. The White House follows Lincoln in 1861 and responds with greater force. The civil war spiral kicks off.

Once more, there are obvious differences between the United States in the 2020s and post-Tito Yugoslavia. As with the Chinese comparison, America is not a communist state.  The USA is also more powerful geopolitically, not at the point of having foreign forces intervene and force settlements.  There are not clear-cut mixtures of ethnic, religious, and linguistic divides; the American situation is more complex.  Yet ethnic cleansing, should it occur, might take different forms, such as racial mass murder.

Why these historical examples out of all others?

First off, I was looking for situations that were as close to the present as possible.  That makes the comparisons less removed than, say, examples from Europe in the 1600s.  These histories are still distant from our present in key ways.  The contemporary internet, for example, could prove a powerful tool in any actor’s arsenal. The experience and impact of COVID-19 might inflect any such future history in ways quite different from our examples.

Second, for each one I began by isolating present-day factors which could drive civil unrest in the United States. Looking at dueling small groups in Portland, Oregon and the group which rioted in the US Capitol brought to mind the fierce, committed extremists of modern Italy. Considering Trump’s cult of personality, I looked for contemporary examples.  North Korea offers one, as does Italy’s Berlusconi, but not with the deliberate cultivation of chaos represented by Mao’s top-down revolution. Considering secession presents several alternatives, like Czechoslovakia’s split or the Eritrean war, but former Yugoslavia has advantages: a larger number of factions, a late industrial economic base, and a mix of ideologies with other identities.

Again, these are sketches. There is a lot more to say about each of those stories. There are plenty of ways today’s American context differs from each. Plus I have a lot more research behind this, but don’t want to overwhelm in a single FB post. My goal is to get you all thinking and commenting, so have at it.

(Bologna bombing photo by Beppe Briguglio, Patrizia Pulga, Medardo Pedrini, Marco Vaccari – www.stragi.it/, CC BY-SA 3.0; Cultural Revolution photo from Wikipedia; Mostar’s Stary Most image from Wikipedia)

**Bryan Alexander is an award–winning, internationally known futurist, researcher, writer, speaker, consultant, and teacher, working in the field of higher education’s future. He is currently a senior scholar at Georgetown University. Bryan's next book is Universities on Fire, to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press. This article was originally published at BryanAlexander.org.