We Won’t Pay! Evaluating The Corinthian Fifteen’s Emotional Appeal

After a series of lawsuits brought by the Department of Education, the for-profit college, Corinthian, recently went under. However, the federal loans Corinthian students had taken out to pay for their educations were not forgiven.

Fifteen former Corinthian students wrote a very public letter to the DOE describing why they were refusing to pay their debts, also addressing fellow students burdened by crushing student loans. The letter is an interesting example of an effective emotional appeal. You may want to discuss it in the context of persuasive messages.

How to Introduce the Assignment

To activate prior knowledge and to stimulate critical thinking, ask students how they feel about student loan debt. No doubt a lively debate will ensue without much further prompting. Before showing students the letter, the following questions may be helpful:

  • How would you argue if you appealed to an institution able to forgive your student loan debt?
    Students will most likely exhibit strong feelings and, therefore, mostly appeal to the emotions of the recipient. If they provide rational arguments, use the opportunity to categorize the two appeals on the board or your audio-visual equipment.
  • Why would the students choose to write a public letter?
    Social media are made for appeals such as the one initiated by the Corinthian Fifteen. The subject is hotly debated, and the public is likely to side with the embattled students. More students might come forward to join the fight (that number seems to have risen to about 100 at this time). Also, the institution, here the Department of Education, might take the letter more seriously when it is in the public eye.
  • What kind of appeal does the letter represent? Is it emotional, rational, or mixed?
    The letter appeals to emotions. Students need to know that emotional appeals can be very effective but that in business a rational appeal is usually expected and preferred. Encourage students to find evidence in the text. The absence of specific details, statistics, and practical reasons points clearly to an emotional appeal.
  • How does the language used in the letter affect the appeal?
    The students are using evocative, colorful language meant to draw attention to their plight (predatory empire, immoral system). They are calling for action in short declarative sentences that read like memorable slogans (for example, Join our fight. Erase these loans. We won’t pay.)
  • Is this letter likely to achieve its purpose? Is it effective? If not, how could it be improved?
    We don’t know what will happen, but student loans are front and center in the public debate. The Corinthian Fifteen’s letter might rally others to their side. Besides, many solid, rational reasons can be cited that strongly support actions to lower student debt and provide access to college for as many talented young people as possible. The future of the country depends on an educated workforce.

Discussing the Model Documents

First show the unmarked public letter, and read the document paragraph by paragraph with the class. Solicit students’ feedback after each section. Encourage students to use their gut feelings and common sense. Help students identify how the writers sound (their writing tone.) This will help the group pick up on the letter’s emotional content.

After reading and discussing the entire document, you may want to show the annotated letter. Discussing the comments will reinforce the work the class as a whole has accomplished.

Please let us know how the assignment worked for you and your students!

Student Letter – Plain Unannotated

Student Letter – Annotated


















© Guffey/Loewy 2015











© Guffey/Loewy 2015

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