Martha Stewart

Toby Merrill

Years before student debt would be widely considered a national crisis—Americans now owe a combined $1.6 trillion—Toby Merrill started using litigation to fight what she calls the “worst-of-the-worst student debt,” the kind incurred by students who enrolled in predatory for-profit colleges that burdened them with debt and provided them with worthless degrees. As founder and director of Harvard Law School’s Project on Predatory Student Lending, Merrill and her team now represent hundreds of thousands of former students in several lawsuits against the Education Department, challenging officials to stop collecting on loans from defunct for-profit colleges and trade schools. Many of her clients are immigrants, people of color or the first in their families to attend college, so the issue is about more than money, she says: “It’s magnifying the racial wealth gap and denying a person access to meaningful higher education.” —Katie Reilly

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.