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Toby Merrill and Eileen Connor

Taking on the for-profit college industry — and fighting for the American Dream

Toby Merrill and Eileen ConnorAram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Long before the Democratic candidates for president were warning about our national student debt crisis, Toby Merrill and Eileen Connor were doing something about it.

They worked separately at first, and then together at Harvard Law School’s Project on Predatory Student Lending.

Housed in Jamaica Plain, the project uses litigation to go after for-profit colleges that have misled students about the cost of their education and made false promises about well-paying jobs after graduation.

In one of their highest profile cases, the organization won more than $500 million in debt relief for students who attended the now-defunct ITT Technical Institute. The project has also taken on a US Department of Education that’s been slow to crack down on the industry.


Merrill, the director of the project, says the work is, in part, about racial and economic justice; many of the students targeted by for-profit colleges are low-income and people of color. And Connor, the legal director, says the project aims to remedy a particularly egregious betrayal of the American Dream.

The 1 million student loan borrowers the group represents pursued higher education — “something that we have all been taught to see as a way of bettering our lives and better contributing to our community, to our country” — only to find themselves “immeasurably worse off.”

“That just seems like such a perversion of justice,” she says. “And it seems like it’s something worth fighting about.”

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.