I'm a debt striker who attended Art Institute in Illinois. Last week I was an invited guest at a press conference held by Lisa Madigan, the Illinois State Attorney General, and Dick Durbin, the Senior Senator from Illinois. Senator Durbin had called a press conference in response to recent news from the Department of Education that Obama-era protections for student debtors would be rolled back significantly.
Of course, as all Debt Collective members know, the Obama-era protections are pretty weak. Obama's DOE could have cancelled all fraudulent student loans with the stroke of a pen. They didn't. It's too bad we still need press conferences to draw attention to the issue. Senator Durbin and Attorney General Madigan invited three former for-profit students, myself included, to highlight why protections are important for former students.
But how did I get the opportunity to be there?
I have been in contact with the Illinois State Attorney General since 2011, when I started submitting complaints against EDMC and the Art Institutes for the nonexistent education I received and their deceptively inflated career statistics. I started submitting complaints to the Senator in 2014 after learning about his work in speaking out against for-profit schools.
When I first started writing, I didn’t make much headway at all. I would get very generic, “Thank you for reaching out. Your comments are very important to us,” types of responses. Rather than stop trying to be heard, I kept writing. But I also kept learning. As I learned more about the predatory nature of these institutions and the nature of debt itself, as well as how nefarious the servicers and collectors are, the more empowered I felt to speak knowledgeably against them. My letters became less about myself and more about how predatory colleges have affected others in our state as well.
I shared stories with my elected officials about my neighbors and other members of my community who have gone through the same thing. I started citing news sources and complaining aggressively about the schools and the servicers.
I also started getting a bit more confrontational. When the Illinois Attorney General agreed to the settlement with EDMC in the $11 Billion Fraud Lawsuit, I wrote and voiced my grievances on the matter. When I filed my Borrower Defense to Repayment application, I sent a copy to my Attorney General and implored them to investigate the school. Eventually, my correspondence started to get noticed and a staffer from the Office of the Attorney General began to correspond with me.
When I started reaching out to Senator Durbin, I thanked him for his work. I shared my story, knowing that he was sympathetic to our situation. I asked him to please help us. I wrote to him about borrower defense, about Navient, about EDMC and the need to shut them down. At first, I got the generic letters in response, but I found that the more I wrote about the situation, the better I was at doing it. So I kept writing.
My direct correspondence ended up being a result of networking with other for-profit students. A former Corinthian student and striker, Dawn Thompson, had already been in contact with the Senator’s office and gave me the contact information for a staffer that was looking for students for a roundtable discussion. This taught me that finding out who your elected official's staffers are is crucial to being heard.
I reached out to the staffer, but discovered the roundtable was for downstate students, meaning I wouldn’t be able to participate since I live in the northern part of the state. I reached out to the communities of for-profit student debtors that have established themselves online and tried to get a list to her of students who were interested in participating. Periodically, I would receive correspondence from the staffer, and when they had the event press conference in Chicago, they invited me to participate.
There was an article in Crain’s Chicago recently that insinuated that while Senator Durbin and AG Madigan were speaking out against these colleges, Congressman Krishnamoorthi was trying to breathe new life into them. Raja Krishnamoorthi is the Congressman from my district. So, upon reading this article, I wrote a pretty passionate letter demanding to know what this article was about and wondering why he would endorse fraud colleges when he ran on a progressive platform. I let him know that I voted for him. I told him about other people from our district who are also in the same situation. I sent him links to various actions that I had participated in to show him how serious this issue is to me.
Not even a day later, I got a response from a staffer requesting to have a phone call with me to discuss the bill and the for-profit college issue. I learned that the Crain’s article was misleading, which, I get. I too have been taken out of context in media reports. The staffer stated that my congressman wants to crack down on for-profit colleges. He also wants to introduce another bill that gets rid of useless degrees that do nothing but set students up for a life of debt. And thus, a line of communication was open. The staffer thanked me and told me that, when there are discussions on for-profits, they would like to reach out to me to participate.
I don’t profess to having a magic key for access. All I have done is continue to write and voice my concerns – often. It seems that the more passionate, fact-based, and community oriented I have made my letters, the more successful my rate of response has been.
One thing I would advise against is relying on petitions and pre-filled forms for correspondence. I have never gotten an actual response while using a web form to voice my complaint. Here are some additional tips:
-Always contact your reps or their staffers directly via snail mail, email or phone.
-Write your own letter or speak in your own words.
-Know your audience. If your reps aren’t sympathetic to the situation, you will need to adjust your letter writing to accommodate this.
-Call your reps out for any financial ties they have to the for-profit college or student debt industry.
-Tell them that you will campaign against them.
-Show up at town halls and ask them why they are propping up an industry that has harmed their constituents.
-Know your neighbors. Network with others in your area who have also been adversely affected by these policies. Your story alone can be easily ignored, but when we show solidarity with one another and advocate for each other, we can’t be as easily dismissed.
Here are instructions for how to find your Congressional staffer. Remember, staffers are paid to communicate with their boss's constituents. They work for you. Contact them personally by phone or email and tell them you expect a response. You will likely get one.