Belle Goldman only completed two and a half months of Everest Colleges' medical assisting program back in 2012. But the short stint at the for-profit college left her with thousands of dollars in federal loans and $2,000 in debt from a private loan company, an albatross that has been weighing on her ever since. In the years that followed, Goldman said she fielded calls from Everest and then a debt collector several times a day, who threatened to garnish her disability checks.
A few days ago, she received a letter in the mail informing her that her private debt had been abolished.
"I was overwhelmed with joy and felt like my prayers have been answered," she said.
The letter was signed by Rolling Jubilee, a project of Strike Debt, which itself sprung out of Occupy Wall Street. For the past two years, Rolling Jubilee has raised money to buy portfolios of medical debt on the secondary market for pennies on the dollar—and then has forgiven it rather than collect from its debtors. The project went viral back in November 2012, and to date has erased almost $15 million in medical debt.
Starting today, they're pivoting to the student loan crisis. On the third anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, Rolling Jubilee has announced its purchase of $3.85 million worth of student debt from Everest Colleges, a portfolio they bought for only $100,000. Everest is part of the troubled for-profit chain Corinthian Colleges, which effectively went out of business this summer after the Department of Education withheld federal loan funds for 21 days. The company has been the subject of numerous investigations from attorneys general across the country and the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which announced a $500 million lawsuit against Corinthian on Tuesday.
This past week was a happy one for Goldman and the more than 2,700 students whose debt was erased by Rolling Jubilee. But for the group's members, these tactics are less a solution to student debt, which reached $1.2 trillion this year, and more an opportunity to raise consciousness about the crisis and politicize student debtors to rally around a common cause.
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"This isn't just a stunt or a spectacle," said Astra Taylor, 34, a member of Rolling Jubilee who has $45,000 in student loans. "This isn't a long-term plan, either. The point is to touch people where they are, and try to create a political awareness out of that."
Americans have an average of about $30,000 worth of student debt, and one in ten borrowers default on their loans. According to Andrew Ross, a Rolling Jubilee board member and professor at New York University, this sizable group of people can make an impact if they act as a unit.
Back in 2012, "we were trying to get a million student debtors to default as a political statement," he said. "We didn't end up making that happen. A million student debtors ended up defaulting, anyway, but not collectively, so it had no political impact."
Rolling Jubilee hopes to change that with the launch of their new platform The Debt Collective, which will aid people besieged by student loans (among other debtors) to organize. The first challenge, Taylor said, is to "create a common economic identity" among student debtors—not an easy task.
"Debtors often don't identify their condition as permanent," Taylor said. Unlike medical debt, which is usually perceived as unavoidable, "people with student loans feel like they made a choice. It's their problem. They feel shame instead of outrage."
There's also the difficulty of a defining a common enemy; while workers share an employer, students with debt are "geographically diffuse" and their loans come from multiple sources. And in the case of Everest, which mostly serves nontraditional, low-income students, it's tough to organize students with children, jobs, and unpredictable, chaotic lives. Still, Rolling Jubilee has reached out to and strategized with many Everest students through Facebook groups like Everest Colleges Avengers, and many of them have become politicized.
Nathan Hornes, 24, who graduated from Everest in April 2014 with nearly $60,000 in student loans, created Everest Colleges Avengers shortly after Corinthian announced it was closing and selling its campuses. Since graduation, he's was hired at Carl Jr's making minimum wage and feels that his Bachelor's from a for-profit school like Everest is more of a liability on his resume than an asset.
Hornes has spoken with more than 100 Everest students, trying to organize them around the idea of debt resistance. "The amount of debt students have definitely wakes them up," he said. "We are getting stuck with this massive amount of debt that nobody will be able to get out of."
The recent collapse of Corinthian may give the Debt Collective launch a certain amount of poetic gravitas, but the organization's ultimate aims go beyond any individual school. The long-term goals, group members say, are to challenge the very existence of student loans in the first place and advocate for free education.
"There's this strong sense in the United States of morality behind debt—that being a good person means paying what you owe," said Thomas Gokey, 35, who has $67,000 in student loans and came up with the idea of buying portfolios on the secondary market for the collective's first action back in 2012. "We hope to undermine this fake morality around debt." Since the debt was bought for pennies on the dollar, he says, people "really don't owe this debt at all. Someone is simply making a profit."
Meanwhile, he said, "most people think there's no other way to get an education, that massive student debt is normal. But there's nothing normal about it." Public education, Gokey said, should simply be free like it was decades ago.
Critics say it would put too much strain on the federal budget to accomplish this, but Rolling Jubilee members claim it'd be remarkably easy to make public education free again. By their calculations, it'd only cost around $13 billion—a fraction of 1 percent of the federal budget. The group also challenges some experts who characterize higher education as a personal investment.
These critics "are not thinking of education as a collective good, only a wage enabler," said Luke Herrine, 26, a law student and a member of Strike Debt. "They're not taking into account a volatile job market or unequal educational opportunity."
Rolling Jubilee's past actions have been largely ignored by politicians, but the group isn't waiting around for Congress.
"Even Elizabeth Warren is virtually powerless," said Gokey, referring to the Massachusetts Senator's failed student loan refinancing bill, which was just blocked for a second time in the Senate this week. "I'm more interested in the kind of power debtors can have if they organize and act directly."
—By Nona Willis Aronowitz, NBC News