Can’t Pay? Don’t Pay! Or, Become An Edu-Punk: Some Solutions To The Problem Of Student Debt
Chances are, if you have a college or postgraduate degree, you also have student loans to pay back. Nationwide, Americans have around $1 trillion in education debt; each year, the cost of tuition at universities is rising (it rose 5.9 percent in 2008 at private universities and 6.4 percent at public ones).
In a healthy economy, students would ideally find salaried jobs upon graduation and begin paying loans back. But with unemployment in the U.S. hovering around nine percent, many former students are struggling to pay back loans or defaulting. One of the issues most prominent on the 99 Percent tumblr blog is the burden of student debt. Unlike other forms of debt, student loan debt will never disappear; it is carried by the debt-holder until he dies and even then can be passed on to a spouse or next-of-kin. And student debt is also a massive industry that brings in significant revenue for banks, collecting agencies (often owned by those very same banks), and the U.S. federal government.
Alan Collinge, who founded StudentLoanJustice.org, was camped-out at Zuccotti Park in New York City with Occupy Wall Street, until the police raided it last Monday night. His mission there was to spread awareness about the predatory nature of the student lending industry, and the need for bankruptcy protection for student loans.
Outside his tent (prior to the raid), Collinge explained why student lending is predatory: it profits from defaults, and therefore has no interest in ensuring that its recipients are actually able to repay. “Not only do the servicers and the lenders make far more money on defaulted loans than the loans that remain in good standing, the guarantor industry, across the nation, on average derives sixty percent of their gross revenues from penalties and fees attached to defaulted student loans,” he told Dowser.
A campaign to raise awareness about this issue called Occupy Student Debt is launching this week in conjunction with protests among students and faculty at the City University of New York against ongoing tuition hikes. The Occupy Student Debt campaign formed after New York University Professor Andrew Ross gave a teach-in called “Is Student Debt a Form of Indenture?” to Occupy Wall Street protesters.
On November 21st, the group announced an online pledge that seeks one million signatures by people who will refuse to pay their loans until certain reforms are made to the student lending industry. Those reforms include federally-funded, tuition-fee tertiary public education, interest-free private loans for students, a requirement that for-profit and private universities open their financial books, and the writing-off of all current student debt. The campaign’s punchy slogan is: “Can’t Pay! Won’t Pay! Join Us! Don’t Pay!”
In seeking to gain one million signatures, the campaign is looking for strength in collective action, which will be important if it is to succeed. One thousand people refusing to pay their loans – and potentially suffering the consequences of defaulting – will not make much of an impact. But one million could be an effective statement while launching a political movement. The Occupy Student Debt Campaign holds the potential to raise awareness about the issue, contributing to a slew of recent articles, asking whether the education bubble could be as dangerous as the mortgage one, noting that debt loads nationwide have risen during the recession, and examining the despair caused by rising unemployment alongside debt burdens.
This political campaign is, like Occupy Wall Street, a radical gesture that may or may not have an effect. Many people won’t want to sign the pledge for fear that not paying their loans will result in default, and a lifetime of ruined credit. But other solutions do exist. And they are radical, as well.
You can become an EduPunk – and Do It Yourself. Senior Fast Company writer Anya Kamenetz wrote DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education in 2010 to outline the problem of student debt and propose alternatives. The main idea behind being an edupunk is peer-to-peer learning, and finding resourceful ways to learn without spending money at an accredited university. You can see this coming to life at Brooklyn’s wildly popular Brooklyn Brainery, where any expert on a subject can sign up to teach workshops that cost barely more than thirty bucks.
There is also the idea of a “nomadic” university, which has popped up in various places, most recently in New York City, where a cluster of professors and students are working together to bring it to life. The idea here is to expand learning beyond the Ivory Tower, creating new opportunities via the Internet and local communities for people to focus on learning specific subjects.
Are these alternatives to the current university system viable? It’s hard to say. They’re fresh ideas with a lot of energy behind them. They may seem better than $200,000 in debt (the approximate cost of four years at New York University), but many would argue that the socializing experience of attending an established university is valuable in itself.
And can the Occupy Student Debt Campaign reach one million signatures, now that Zuccotti Park has been evicted and the movement is recovering? “The movement is bigger than any one park or location. This really is a national movement that is only growing every day,” explained Suzanne Collado, a master’s student at New York University and a student debtor, who is an organizer in the Occupy Student Debt Campaign. “When there are examples of an oppressive system that play out in events like the police pushing occupiers out of Zuccotti Park, it just brings to the surface all the injustices that people in this movement have been speaking out against in the first place,” she said. “It galvanizes us and makes us more secure in our fight.”