“Who is that guy?” Geraldo Rivera asked, sounding equal parts annoyed and intrigued, as a man danced past the window behind him for the tenth time.
Geraldo Rivera should have known. A moment earlier, the man had spun his sign into clear view, just behind Rivera’s head. It said “StudentLoanJustice.Org.”
The man holding the sign was there to make a guest appearance on the live broadcast of Fox News Outnumbered, just like Rivera.
He got a lot of airtime, despite the best efforts of the camera crew to drop the shot when he danced by. So did his big yellow sign – which is all that Alan Collinge wanted.
Alan’s sign has appeared in the background of network broadcasts for several years. It was on screen during live convention coverage and general election debates on CNN, MSNBC and Fox. Alan and his sign show up in the background during protests, parades, sporting events, and any talk show with a window to stand in and a live camera.
He is the master of guerilla marketing.
When he doesn’t have a printed sign, he makes do with poster board and magic markers. Slight of build, with thinning blond hair, a pleasant manner and an open, almost innocent expression, he doesn’t look like a rabble-rouser. But Alan Collinge is plain spoken to the point of being blunt. He is not afraid of aggressively speaking his truth to the powerful and the public. He got a reputation for that while he still thought of himself as “just another borrower.” He called up Albert Lord, CEO of Sallie Mae, at his home to get some answers. When he later published his attempt at a conversation, the opposition tried to frame the founder of Student Loan Justice as a lunatic.
“Obviously,” Alan points out, “the attempt fell short and a few years ago, it was Lord and Sallie Mae that fell from grace.” Perhaps others rose to take their place, but Alan Collinge is still standing.
In their defense, they are up against some pretty clear type casting. Alan Collinge looks like what he is, that well-intentioned, socially awkward guy that turns out to be the hero of the story. You know the type – the little guy, picked on and rarely popular but he survives the zombie apocalypse because he is courageous and smart.
Did I mention smart? Alan Collinge is an actual rocket scientist, formerly employed at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) who manages NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs.
I met Alan years before he began his quixotic mission. He had a job; he owned a home. I had heard about his struggle to make sense out of the student loan industry, but not his decision to fight back. I didn’t even know that he had left town until long after he was gone. What drove this man to abandon his home, his livelihood and take to the road?
The student loan program is supposed to make higher education accessible to more than the wealthiest Americans. It’s supposed to give hard-working people a chance to make the higher income that comes with a college degree. But loan debt had the opposite effect for Collinge, he says, keeping him from being able to pursue his career.
He says that “like many graduates whose story (he) has gathered,” he was surprised when his income was insufficient to pay his bills and keep him out of default. Most employees in his line of work (rocket science) are required to have a secret clearance. Alan discovered he couldn’t get a clearance with a defaulted student loan. He describes being desperate to work with the lenders and loan servicing companies who purchased the right to collect his debt. “It was almost as if they didn’t want me to pay on time,” he says, with a half smile. “I thought it was crazy.”
Being a scientist, he took a scientific approach and began to research. He identified the links between cause and effect. His scientific conclusion – lenders made more money off defaults than they did repayment. “They got fees for putting loans in default, and got to add that to the debt. Whatever they collected from the debtor paid those fees – and then they would sell the loan at full value to the next collector. Once I understood that, I realized why default wasn’t a problem for the lenders; it was their standard business practice.”
According to Collinge, the culprit was the elimination of standard consumer protections, which likewise removes all incentive for industry self-regulation. He says that’s when the market got really predatory. His voices rises. You can see it on his face. This is his passion, and he’s stating the obvious. “Not only are truth-in-lending laws inapplicable, student loans are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy”, he says, “It is the only non-dischargeable consumer debt, treated like the fourteen criminal acts for which relief is unavailable.”
With no consumer protections, monetary incentives for putting debtors into default status, and no way out of the debt, Alan predicted that the market would become an expanding breeding ground for predatory lending.
When this became clear to the rocket scientist, he set out to fix it. He says he presumed he would get that done in two years. Over time, he lost his home, his job, even his car. He camped at Zucotti Park with the Occupy crowd and stood in front of the Bull on Wall Street, holding up his sign, and calling that movement “the winter of discontent.”
Alan has been “occupying” the student loan industry since 2005. For over a decade, he has lived hand-to-mouth, sleeping on couches and spare bedrooms, in cheap motels, hostels, his car and even on the street. “It’s getting worse, like I knew it would,” he says. Quoting a recent study at the Pew Research Institute that reports “Millennials” are making substantially less per year than their parents did at their age, Alan Collinge says, “in the same time period, the costs of college have increased by a factor of 10 and 2 out of 3 students are unable to sustain an income level that is adequate to pay the full interest due on their notes, let alone pay down anything on the principal of their outstanding student loans.”
Alan isn’t alone or ignored any longer – Student Loan Justice has over 10,000 members and Alan makes regular appearances on national news programs.
He has been interviewed and quoted on the subject everywhere from 60 Minutes to the Wall Street Journal, Forbes Magazine, PBS, Tom Hartmann and the Huffington Post. They have done documentaries about his work. His editorials have been published in The New York Times, The Hill, The Daily Kos and he wrote a best selling book on the subject. He speaks articulately and passionately about his cause, with the history, the facts and the truth he has gathered over the years.
He stands in front of the DNC, RNC, the White House and the Capitol Building, on Wall Street, the National Mall, and in front of the Department of Education building holding his signs, waiting for somebody to ask. When they do, he will tell them the sae thing he has for years, that the answer is pretty simple. It isn’t about freeing more money for loans, ending “for-profit” schools, giving c
ollege away for free or allowing people to float their debt on income-based payments – it’s about restoring sanity and balance to the system.
Collinge says, “Restore the constitutional protections of bankruptcy to student loans, or expect the situation to worsen.”
He says science demonstrates that “if there is no natural balance, predatory behaviors increase.” Has his hypothesis been proven? Alan thinks so. He points to an aggressive marketing campaign of school loan programs to parents and their children, beginning in preschool and continuing after graduation, the rising costs of tuition and millions of dollars in undisclosed slush funds in university coffers. Other researchers agree; in February of this year, the Federal Reserve Bank in New York again reported a direct link between an abundance of student loan dollars and the increase in the costs of tuition. I read the report. There is nothing in it that links the available dollars to a lack of consumer debt protections. Alan says, “They half get it, or maybe they just don’t want to talk about that part. But it’s true, lenders have an essentially risk-free environment.” Then he adds, “let’s hope this is the year that Congress finally and completely catches on.”
Whether dressed for the occasion in a signature blue button down and dress slacks, or dressed for the weather in shorts and a ball cap or a stocking cap and coat, he doesn’t sound or look dangerous.
But he is, if only because he knows he has science on his side and he never gives up.
“Who is that guy?” Geraldo asked, as somebody signaled to close the blinds.
Geraldo should know. Alan Collinge is StudentLoanJustice.org.