Sallie Mae has dropped its membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) after a student-led campaign demanding that the nation's largest student loan lender cut ties with the controversial organization. Sallie Mae is the 50th corporation to publicly drop its ALEC membership in the past year-and-a-half as the organization has come under increasing public scrutiny.
"It's a terrific victory for the students, community members, and unions members that were involved," said Chris Hicks, Student Debt Campaign Organizer at Jobs With Justice. "It's no accident that Sallie Mae has decided to leave ALEC -- from the shareholder meeting in May and the meeting students and graduates had with CEO Jack Remondi in June to the nearly 15,000 petition signatures gathered in August, students have shown Sallie Mae they are serious about their demands and are not going away."
Many students and young people were outraged that a company that profits from student debt would use their loan payments to fund ALEC, which (among other things) works to make the education system a for-profit endeavor and advances laws that make it harder for many college students to vote.
In August, before ALEC's Annual Meeting in Chicago, organizers with the Student Labor Action Project, Jobs With Justice, and the United States Students Association gathered nearly 15,000 signatures on a petition demanding Sallie Mae drop its ALEC membership. A few months earlier, in May,at least 200 student activists protested outside Sallie Mae's annual shareholder meeting, demanding that it end its relationship with ALEC and increase transparency about its other lobbying and political activities. CEO Jack Remondi agreed to meet with students the following month, but at the time appeared to reject their demands.
The announcement that Sallie Mae dumped ALEC came quietly, in a September 7 article in the Delaware News-Journal.
"The noise level was distracting from the original business purpose," Martha Holler, a senior vice president at Sallie Mae, told the News-Journal. "We will pursue other venues in which to share our collections expertise with state and local governments, and hopefully now our discussions with students ... can focus on what matters most to us all, the success of our education loan customers."
"There is much more work to be done, but this is definitely a first step to hold Sallie Mae accountable for their business practices that we can all celebrate," Hicks said.
ALEC Increasingly Focused on Higher Education
For decades, ALEC has promoted the privatization of K-12 education through voucher programs that re-route taxpayer dollars to for-profit schools. But it has increasingly focused on imposing the same privatization agenda on higher education, with bills like the "College Opportunity Fund Act" that essentially create a taxpayer-funded voucher for for-profit and religious schools.
And, ALEC has adopted several bills to impose a standardized testing regime on public colleges and universities, which on the K-12 level has altered the classroom dynamic and interfered with teaching, for example with "The Collegiate Learning Assessment Bill," which was considered at ALEC's August meeting in Chicago.
ALEC still counts among its members Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit college chain that operates campuses under names like Everest, Heald, and WyoTech. Corinthian has become notorious for aggressive recruiting practices and leaving students unprepared for the job market and saddled with massive student loan debts. Nationally, over 40 percent of Corinthian's students default on their loans, and only 60% of students complete their coursework.
Perhaps not surprisingly, ALEC has a "Resolution in Support of Private Sector Colleges and Universities."
Youth Activists Focus On ALEC
Student opposition to ALEC is not limited to its role in higher education.
ALEC has helped advance the strict voter ID laws that have swept the country in recent years, which make it harder to vote for many young people who don't have the forms of identification required under the laws. Student activists have also singled-out ALEC's opposition to living wage standards, which makes it more difficult to work through school, and bills that make young people (particularly young people of color) less safe, such as Stand Your Ground laws and bills like the "Campus Personal Protection Act" that promote guns on college campuses.
The Dream Defenders occupied Florida Governor Rick Scott's offices for weeks earlier this summer demanding a repeal of the state's ALEC-approved Stand Your Ground law. And that group and others involved with the We Got Next coalition marched on ALEC's offices on August 23, the day before the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
"We're tired of how [ALEC] has manipulated the legislative process, and we want to let them know we won't continue to stand by," said Kim Moore, an activist and organizer with We Got Next.
With the departure of Sallie Mae, at least 50 corporations and six nonprofits have publicly cut ties to ALEC since the Center for Media and Democracy launched ALECexposed.org in 2011 (although Wells Fargo has recently begun funding the group again).
This article has been updated.