What they wanted was an education. What they got were mountains of student debt and degrees that have led to nothing but trouble.
On Tuesday, more than a dozen former Corinthian College students demanded that the government discharge the debt they incurred during their time at the troubled for-profit college.
“Discharge these loans," Nathan Hornes, 25, said. "You’ve been investigating this company for several years…do the right thing.”
Corinthian, the former students said, pressured them into taking out loans and then failed to teach them job skills. Their credit scores have tanked, they said, so they cannot buy houses and cars. Several said they would like to get married, but don't want to saddle their partner with their debt. And they can't go back to a more reputable school, they said, because they are too deep in the hole already.
Hornes attended Corinthian's Everest campus in Ontario Metro from 2010 to 2014, where he says he earned a business applied management degree and racked up $68,000 in debt. He now works at the fast-food restaurant Smashburger.
During a meeting with officials from the Education Department and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Washington, D.C., Hornes and the other students said that if officials don't reply to their demands in 30 days, they are prepared to come back with more disgruntled former students and press their case again.
“We know this is wrong and we’ll go wherever we need to to make sure this is fixed," Tasha Courtright, 33, said.
Last summer, Corinthian was forced to close or sell off most of its campuses after the CFPB accused the company of falsifying job placement rates and pressuring students into taking out loans. Attorneys general in several states have filed lawsuits against Corinthian and several lawmakers have urged officials to consider discharging the students' federal loans.
Courtright owes more than $41,000 after earning an associates degree in criminal justice and a bachelors in business management from the same Everest campus as Hornes. She now works just several hours per month as a substitute in an elementary school cafeteria.
"It's the biggest thing on my mind every day of my life," she said of her debt.
The former students belong to the Corinthian 100, a growing coalition whose members say they will not pay back the loans they were urged to take out to pay for degrees that have not led to good jobs or living wages.
Many simply cannot afford to, and have resorted to food stamps and crashing on friends' couches to get by.
“I’m not one of these people who are sitting on the couch expecting the government to take care of me," said Jessica King, a 32-year-old who owes $33,000 after completing a 10-month medical assisting program at the Newport News Everest campus. "I want to go back and get a real degree and until I get these loans off of my credit report, I can’t do anything.”
King currently waits tables and bartends, the same thing she did before going to Corinthian.
The group, clad in black with accents of red to showcase that they're "in the red" was pumped up as they headed into the hour-long meeting on Tuesday, which was closed to press. But they looked dejected, if not surprised, upon exit.
They said the officials, including Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell, who oversees higher education for the federal government, promised nothing concrete and offered no immediate relief.
"[We have] no solid lead as to which way they're going," said Sarah Dieffenbacher, 37, who earned her paralegal associates from Everest's Ontario Metro campus and completed most of her bachelors in criminal justice.
Dieffenbacher has $80,000 in federal loans and $30,000 in private loans, she said.
Corinthian did not respond to a request for comment. Denise Horn, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said in an email to Fusion that, "The Under Secretary said the Department is exploring options to help facilitate the submission of claims."
She added that the students had submitted a list of proposals the department will get back to them on, but declined to spell out what exactly the department plans to do in the next 30 days.
CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman Rohit Chopra said in a statement, “We appreciate the opportunity to hear directly from student loan borrowers about their experiences dealing with for-profit colleges and their student loan servicers."
The students say they are not looking for a handout, just some accountability. Why, they asked, were they allowed to take out federal loans to pay for such a useless degree?
“It’s as basic as if you bought something and it was defective or you bought something and it never came," Courtright said. "Are you going to still pay for that and not file a complaint?”
It's a question the government is beginning to consider. Zenith, the loan servicing company that Corinthian sold many of its campuses to, forgave more than $480 million worth of private student debt, but those with federal loans who had attended more than a year or so before the investigation were largely stuck.
On Wednesday, members of the "Corinthian 100+" will meet with congressional staffers to discuss next steps. The CFPB's litigation against Corinthian remains ongoing.
But the former students say they have waited long enough.
"It should be guaranteed if the federal government is spending their money, our taxpayer money to fund these schools," Dieffenbacher said. "It should be backed up with a guarantee.”
“Had I known what was going on," Hornes said, "had the Department of Education actually done their job, I would’ve absolutely not signed up for this school.”
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.
Geneva Sands is a Washington, D.C.-based producer/editor focused on national affairs and politics. Egg creams, Raleigh and pie are three of her favorite things.