Removing the Burden of Student Loans

November 17th, 2011 by Phil Mattera

Undeterred by its eviction from public parks in numerous cities, the Occupy movement is looking to other venues, among them college campuses.

Occupying universities is not just a matter of finding new encampment sites. It is also a means of asserting the connection between the current protests and the student activism of the 1960s, which in many ways paved the way for the current upheaval.

Those historical links have been in full view in Berkeley, where Occupy forces have been struggling to maintain an encampment at the University of California on the very spot where the Free Speech Movement was born nearly a half century ago. The call by that movement’s leader, Mario Savio, for students to throw their “bodies upon the gears” of the capitalist/military machine is echoed in the speeches in today’s Occupy general assemblies.

Berkeley also serves as a reminder that the universities are not that far removed from Wall Street. A 1998 agreement by UC-Berkeley to put its biotechnology research under the control of drug company Novartis (later Syngenta) was a key event in the corporatization of academia and was prominently featured in Jennifer Washburn’s 2005 book University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education.

But perhaps the most compelling reason for Occupy efforts on college campuses is that they are the scene of the crime for the abuse that perhaps more than any other animates the current movement: the burden of student debt.

For many young Occupiers, who have never had a chance to take out a home mortgage on which to be foreclosed, their main relationship to Wall Street is through what they owe banks on the loans they amassed for their education. It is thus no surprise that some of the more common Occupy protest signs are those that say something like: “I have $80,000 in student loan debt. How can I ever pay that back?”

Occupiers are starting to move from simply bemoaning their student loans to rejecting the idea that those obligations have to be met. We’re seeing the emergence of a movement for student loan debt abolition.

To put this movement in context, it’s helpful to recall the modern history of higher education in the United States. Once the province of the upper class, colleges were transformed in the post-World War II era into a system for preparing a workforce that was becoming increasingly white-collar. The GI Bill and later the candidly named National Defense Student Loans were not social programs as much as they were indirect training subsidies for the private sector. The Basic Educational Opportunity Grants (later renamed Pell Grants) created in the 1970s brought young people from the country’s poorest families into the training system.

It was precisely this sense that they were being processed for an industrial machine that motivated many of the student protesters of the 1960s. As with many of today’s Occupiers, they ended up questioning the entire way of life that had been programmed for them.

Those challenges eventually ebbed, and the powers that be then pulled a cruel trick on young people. Once a college education had become all but essential for survival in society, students were forced to start shouldering much more of its cost. During the 1980s, the Reagan Administration slashed federal grant programs, compelling students to make up the difference through borrowing. As early as 1986, a Congressional report was warning that student loans were “overburdening a generation.”

Over the past 25 years, that burden has become increasingly onerous. Both Republican and Democratic Administrations exacerbated the problem by cracking down on borrowers who could not keep up with their payments, while at the same time giving the profit-maximizing private sector greater control over the system. That control was intensified by the privatization of the Student Loan Marketing Association (Sallie Mae) in the late 1990s and by the refusal of Congress for years to heed calls to get private banks out of the student loan business.

It was not until March 2010 that Congress, at the urging of the Obama Administration, eliminated the private parasites and converted billions in bank subsidies into funds for the expansion of the Pell Grant program. This was a remarkable step that will reduce future debt burdens, but by the time it occurred a great deal of damage had already been done.

During the past two decades, student loan debt has skyrocketed. Last year new loans surpassed $100 billion for the first time, and total loans outstanding are soon expected to exceed $1 trillion. According to the College Board, the typical recipient of a bachelor’s degree now owes $22,000 upon graduation. These numbers are all the more daunting in light of the dismal job prospects for graduates, millions of whom are unemployed or underemployed.

Given this history, young people are justified in viewing their student debts as akin to the unsustainable mortgages foisted on low-income home buyers by predatory lenders. President Obama recently announced some administrative adjustments to student loan obligations, but that will make only a small dent in the problem.

Even before the Occupy movement began, there was talk of a student loan debt abolition movement. Much of this talk was inspired by the writings of George Caffentzis, including a widely circulated article in the journal Reclamations. Caffentzis acknowledges the challenges to such a movement stemming from the fact that student loans are not repayable while borrowers are still in school: “Student loans are time bombs, constructed to detonate when the debtor is away from campus and the collectivity college provides is left behind.”

The advent of the Occupy movement is creating a new collectivity and a new way of thinking that addresses the call by Caffentzis for a “political house cleaning to dispel the smell of sanctity and rationality surrounding debt repayment regardless of the conditions in which it has been contracted and the ability of the debtor to do so.” Occupiers are also apt to be more receptive to Caffentzis’s argument that student debt should be seen not as consumer debt but in the context of education as an adjunct to the labor market.

A decade ago, many U.S. activists were building a Jubilee campaign for third world debt cancellation. We now need a similar effort here at home to liberate young people from the consequences of an educational financing system that has gone terribly wrong.

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