S1 E5: Debt Collective organizers on crafting campaigns against an idea and generating “inside game” leverage by keeping up “outside” pressure
December 13, 2022
Ann Bowers is a former Corinthian Colleges Inc student and organizer with the Debt Collective.
Eleni Schirmer is a writer, educator and organizer. Her writings have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, Boston Review, and elsewhere. She currently works as a research associate with the Future of Finance Initiative at UCLA’s Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, and organizes with The Debt Collective.
#CancelStudentDebt: A campaign to transform an idea
It’s hard to believe that a mass movement to cancel student debt was openly ridiculed when Occupy Wall Street activists first proposed it in 2011. Just over ten years later, President Biden authorized billions in student debt cancellation — months before the midterms. During his own tight midterm race, Senator Raphael Warnock pushed Biden to take even more dramatic executive action to cancel student debt. (Organizers are pointing out that the president could now cancel debt without waiting on federal courts to authorize it.)
Before they became the Debt Collective, several of the group’s founders, participants in Occupy Wall Street, started an OWS offshoot, Strike Debt, to encourage debt resistance, and innovated crowdfunding debt purchases on the secondary debt market (later borrowed by John Oliver’s late night show) as an outreach tactic. Using crowdfunded donations, the Rolling Jubilee abolished more than $32 million of medical, student, payday loan, and probation debt.
The organizers (themselves largely debtors or former debtors) described that as their campaign scouting phase — what would it look like to organize people around debt? They came to the conclusion that, if they used the basic principle behind labor organizing — alone, a single worker is weak compared to the power of the boss — then millions of debtors together could use their debt to threaten their creditors. What if they said, “can’t pay, won’t pay“, all at the same time?
During the scouting period, they built relationships with all kinds of debtors, and to this day continue to organize around housing, bail and medical debt. But in 2014, many of the group’s leaders focused increasingly on debtors with student debt, many of whom were already organizing together online. Finding themselves shut out of buying private student debt by lender Navient, they turned to for-profit college debt. Their initial focus on the students of Corinthian Colleges Inc. showed the group’s knack for both basebuilding and waging narrative campaigns. Organizing around debt wasn’t easy: most student debtors, particularly those who had attended for-profit schools accused of fraud, initially felt a level of shame, not anger. But when Debt Collective organizers bought $4 million in student debt for $100,000, erasing the debt of 2,700 former Corinthian Colleges Inc. students, it communicated their belief that the students weren’t to blame — that they should, in the organizers’ words, turn “shame into outrage”. After purchasing and canceling their debt, the collective continued to build relationships with former Corinthians students, finding them in Facebook groups with names like “Everest College Avengers,” a group instigated by Nathan Hornes, who would become a key part of the evolving campaign.
Around the same time as the original Strike Debt formation dissolved, with many of the same leaders sticking around to focus on building the Debt Collective’s vision of a debtors’ union, organizers invited student debtors to virtual and IRL “Debtors’ Assemblies” where they could tell their stories, and support each other to understand how the higher education debt system was put in place over the last several decades; how student debt skyrocketed by over 700% from 1995 to 2017, growing from $187 billion to $1.4 trillion; how successive administrations had done nothing to slow it down. Over 200,000 students had attended for-profit schools like ITT Tech accused of defrauding their students, but as of 2014, those borrowers were still on the hook to lenders.
Focusing on Corinthians students ended up giving the Debt Collective significant inside-game leverage. They announced their debt purchase the same week the Obama Administration sued Corinthians Inc, putting the debtor organizers technically on the same side as their target, the Department of Education, who organizers thought were moving too slowly to hold Corinthians accountable and help students left in the lurch. But the collective didn’t want to be in the position of pleading for Obama’s aides to work faster. They wanted them to work differently, and to take seriously the demand that hundreds of thousands of defrauded students deserved to have their loans canceled. The question was how to force the Department of Education to do this. What if the student debtors turned their unwillingness (and in some cases, inability) to pay back their debts into a collective action? A debt strike. Collective organizers invited two dozen Corinthians debtors to a strategy meeting in San Francisco, where they weighed out the risks and the opportunity at hand. Fifteen decided to go forward with launching the nation’s first student debt strike, Hornes among them.
Following the strike’s launch in February 2015, the group was contacted by an Obama appointee, Rohit Chopra at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (now the agency’s chief under Biden): Would debt strikers like to tell their stories in Washington? They were given a sympathetic audience of high-level CFPB, Department of Education and Treasury Department officials, who probably thought they would get congratulated for taking initial steps to hold the for-profit education company accountable. Instead, the group “dropped a bombshell” on the Obama aides, as organizer and Corinthians debt striker Ann Bowers recounted later. They had discovered an obscure provision of the 1965 Higher Education Act, “borrower defense”, allowing the government to discharge the loans of students who attended schools accused of fraud. But there was no formal process for requesting loan cancellation. So the group had created their own application for debt relief, and had quietly solicited former students of Corinthians, ITT Tech and The Art Institute in advance, bringing hundreds of borrower defense claims to the meeting. “We had a red box full of them and Luke, one of our legal guys, picked it up and slammed it on the desk,” said Bowers. “And he said, ‘We did your work for you’. They were stunned.”
The meeting ended, unsurprisingly, without a commitment by the administration to use what the Debt Collective asserted was presidential authority to fully cancel all student debt, beginning with the debts of defrauded students. The collective continued to collect borrower defense applications on their website over the spring, eventually collecting tens of thousands of submissions, and a few months later, the Department of Education borrowed it almost verbatim to use as the official application form on the department’s website. By the end of 2016 over 82,000 borrowers had used it to file claims for loan cancellation, and Bowers had even been invited to participate in the committee that created new debt discharge rules. As Debt Collective co-founder Hannah Appel pointed out later, striking had won them a seat at the bargaining table.
But unlike many campaigners who, once they are invited into a formal alliance with their targets, abandon the “outside game” for a more collegial relationship, the Debt Collective didn’t simply sit at the negotiating table — throughout 2015 and 2016, they continued to put public pressure on the administration to move faster, and initiated direct actions challenging the logic of student debt itself. As just one example, dozens of dues-paying Debt Collective members traveled to the annual student financial aid professions conference in New Orleans in the summer of 2015, and performed satirical public actions exposing the reality that Black, Indigenous and other borrowers of color were more likely to have unsustainable debt loads, and drawing attention to the financial aid industry’s complicity.
By the end of 2016, with the Debt Collective pushing from both the outside and the inside, over 30,000 borrowers had over $400 million in debt canceled by the administration.
But their “inside game” vanished after Trump’s election, forcing the group to pivot back to a focus on building a debtors’ union. They held Debtors’ Assemblies in cities around the country, agitating former students to see themselves not only as victims of a predatory industry but as a sleeping giant with untapped leverage. And they continued to shape the narrative around student debt by finding and amplifying the stories of more and more borrowers.
That narrative started to go mainstream as Democratic presidential candidates began launching their campaigns, simultaneous to the introduction of the Free College for All Act by Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Sen. Bernie Sanders, with Corinthians strikers by their side. Biden eventually promised to “forgive” all undergraduate student debt – that framing, as if debt is a sin someone commits and for which they must ask forgiveness, is one of the key ideological frameworks the Debt Collective pushes against – for borrowers making less than $125,000 a year, and a minimum of $10,000 for all borrowers, with even more relief for students who had attended HBCUs.
But even as what was politically feasible within the Democratic Party shifted dramatically, the logic underlying the Debt Collective’s demand to cancel all student debt remained untested. The federal government had canceled billions of dollars in loans owed to students who had been victims of fraud. But what would be the consequences of canceling all $1.7 trillion?
The Trump Administration, which had blocked student debt cancellation already underway, ironically enough, helped foreshadow the answer, by announcing a pause on all federal student loan payments at the beginning of the pandemic. All told, the “pause” will have lasted almost three years by January 2023, when Biden has ordered payments to resume, with no obvious repercussions for the federal government or higher education writ large, in line with predictions by the Debt Collective’s academic allies.
After Biden was elected, the collective’s organizers correctly assumed he wouldn’t immediately stick to his campaign promises. They announced the Biden Jubilee 100, one hundred new debt strikers who would each refuse to pay their student loans in his presidency’s first 100 days, with a particular goal of visibilizing Black women borrowers. (The group threatened larger mass strikes in advance of each of the three subsequent payment pause deadlines.)
Throughout 2021 local and federal elected officials called on Biden to use his authority to cancel all student debt. And although he reiterated his willingness to cancel some debt, administration officials punted constantly, saying they were still “studying” their own legal authority. But then Debt Collective organizers discovered, through Freedom of Information Act requests, that the administration’s lawyers had already written a memo delineating presidential authority, prompting congressional Democrats to demand he release it.
Doubling down on the pressure campaign, dozens of organizations, from labor unions to the Dream Defenders, sent hundreds of people to a “Pick Up the Pen, Joe” day of action at the Department of Education headquarters in April 2022, thirty days before the latest scheduled payment pause deadline. Along with a Debtors’ Assembly, the event included a “debt burn”, with borrowers invited to write down something that represents their debt on a piece of paper, and burn it together. A month later the group purchased and cancelled the debt of five hundred Black women former students of Bennett College, erasing $1.7 million owed to the college to call attention to the fact that Black women have higher balances on average, and highlighting Biden’s promise to forgive debts owed by HBCU borrowers. They followed that with a documentary on Black women borrowers produced in partnership with The Intercept, and a featured story in The New Yorker on the fastest-growing group of student debtors, seniors, followed by an announcement of a “50 Over 50” debt strike, all of which had the effect of keeping pressure on Biden’s team, who was also getting pushed publicly by Senate Democrats (who were themselves responding to pressure from organizations like New Georgia Project).
When the announcement finally came at the end of August that Biden was canceling up to $20,000 for Pell grant recipients and $10,000 for all borrowers, the group tweeted its response: his action “didn’t achieve a goal – it confirmed a method: organized debtors have power.” The collective held a previously planned a 50 Over 50 strike strategy call the following week. As organizer Eleni Schirmer related, many of the Debt Collective’s members, saddled with over $100,000 in debt, weren’t ready to celebrate what was a historic campaign victory: “Someone logged in and they were like, ‘Look, I almost didn’t come to this call tonight. I’m just so mad. I’m so insulted like I’m supposed to be clapping. Like this is doing nothing for my loans. It’s doing nothing for my payments. The only thing that’s really this is gonna change is that now in January I’m gonna have to figure out how to come up with $500 a month.'”
“And at the same time,” Schirmer said, “twenty million people, when cancellation gets administered, will have their debts totally wiped away.” Bowers expressed a similar sentiment in the days following the announcement: “It is disappointing, but it’s a stepping stone. It shows us if we keep going, you know, we can climb that mountain with stepping stones, basically.”
According to Schirmer, the collective has already begun up the path to accumulating more of those stepping stones: “Over the next year the goal is really to draw out that student debtors are also medical debtors are also housing debtors and are working in indebted cities and sending their kids to indebted schools.The idea is to draw out the connections of debt and indebted life. That’s one of the major things that we hear from Mitt Romney, etc, is like, well, ‘what are you going to do after you cancel student debt, cancel housing debt, cancel medical debt?’ And we say, ‘Hell yeah we are, absolutely.’ So that’s what’s next: To stitch all of these issues together to see them not as single issue campaigns, but part of the same project.”
In reflecting on what lessons this stage of their fight to abolish all debt has for our movements, Schirmer points, first, to their creation of real human connection that destigmatized debt and neutralized the shame many of the group’s members carried, and transform it into a feeling of collective power: “The real signature organizing move of debt organizing is making space where people can say, ‘Hey, we see you, we see you as, as having like more than just a drawer full of unopened loan statements.’ And we see that those loan statements are actually part of our power and we all put them together and can organize around them.”
She also points to the group’s willingness to “hold to this relentless vision of what justice demands, to cancel all debt.” She says she told the 50 Over 50 debtors, “you all have been pushing this demand, and you got a partial win of this demand. You didn’t get it all canceled. You got a partial win. And so you’re not starting from zero. The baseline is now this many people, this much debt has been canceled.” And she notes that even as the group received access to insiders at the Obama Administration, and high-ranking congressional Democrats and presidential candidates, they never moderated their demands, choosing instead to “hold the left pole, keeping the demand far to the left, and having it backed by demands and action to follow, like a strike demanding free college for all.”