After forgiving millions of dollars in medical debt, Occupy Wall Street is tackling a new beast: student loans.
Marking the third anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the group’s Strike Debt initiative announced Wednesday it has abolished $3.8 million worth of private student loan debt since January. It said it has been buying the debts for pennies on the dollar from debt collectors, and then simply forgiving that money rather than trying to collect it.
In total, the group spent a little more than $100,000 to purchase the $3.8 million in debt.
While the group is unable to purchase the majority of the country’s $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt because it is backed by the federal government,private student debt is fair game.
Related: U.S. government to Corinthian Colleges: Forgive $500 million in student loans
This debt Occupy bought belonged to 2,700 people who had taken out private student loans to attend Everest College, which is run by Corinthian Colleges. Occupy zeroed in on Everest because Corinthian Colleges is one of the country’s largest for-profit education companies and has been in serious legal hot water lately.
Following a number of federal investigations, the college told investors this summer that it plans to sell or close its 107 campuses due to financial problems — potentially leaving its 74,000 students in a lurch.
“Despite Corinthian’s dire financial straits, checkered past, and history of lying to and misleading vulnerable students, tens of thousands of people may still be liable for the loans they have incurred while playing by the rules and trying to get an education,” a Strike Debt member said in an email.
Then on Tuesday, the company was hit with a lawsuit from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau over allegations of predatory lending practices. The lawsuit demanded that Corinthian forgive the more than $500 million in outstanding student loan debt that its students had incurred since 2011 through Corinthian’s Genesis loan program.
Strike Debt said it doesn’t think the lawsuit will impact the debts it has already forgiven.
Related: States, federal government cracking down on for-profit colleges
Corinthian Colleges spokesman Kent Jenkins said the school stands by the “high-quality” education its students have received and disputes the CFPB’s allegations. He noted that Corinthian’s default rate is lower than other community colleges and its graduation and job placement rates are higher.
Levia Welch, 32, enrolled at Everest College in January of last year. She had been struggling to find a job without a high school diploma or GED, so she signed up for an 8-month career training and GED preparation program at Everest. She took out several loans to pay for the program, and as it came to an end, she says administrators told her she wouldn’t be able to get a GED unless she stayed in the program longer — which meant taking out even more loans.
Related: 40 million Americans now have student loan debt
Eventually she gave up, saying the classes weren’t helpful and were just putting her deeper into debt. She dropped out in May with nearly $18,000 in debt, spread out between four or five loans. She paid off one small loan of $636 while she was still in the program, and she has been looking for jobs so that she can pay the rest off. But without a GED, finding an employer to hire her has been tough.
“I just wanted to move forward in life but I didn’t get that,” she said. “I feel like I’m a victim.”
Then, last week, she received a letter from Strike Debt saying it had abolished one of her loans of $669. While this means she still owes more than $16,000 in federal and private loans, the letter was a nice surprise.
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The money Strike Debt uses to buy debts comes from a pool of about $700,000 it has received through fundraising events over the past few years. Before starting on student loan debt, the group abolished more than $15 million worth of emergency room bills for thousands of people.
Because the group realizes that abolishing all of the country’s student loan and medical debt would be an impossible task, it is turning its attentions to a new platform called The Debt Collective as a way to bring debtors together so they can negotiate debts with creditors — or refuse to pay them entirely.
“Debt is the tie that binds the 99%, whether you are a student delinquent on your student loans or a parent struggling to pay healthcare bills,” Strike Debt member Ann Larson said in a statement. “Being forced into debt for basic social services is a systemic problem.”
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