This generation has been deluded by a great lie. We were told from the time we learned the alphabet that college is supposed to be the gateway to a respectable career and economic prosperity. Yet the possibility of higher education is becoming more and more elusive for young people. Pell grants used to cover 70% of the costs at a public college in 1980, but today only cover 34% of the costs (http://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/publications/soya_progress.pdf). In this same period, public university tuition has increased by 142%, adjusted for inflation (NY Times, 11/2/2011).
And even if one manages to come out the other side with a degree, job markets are projected to remain dismal long after the recession official ends. Moreover, those lucky enough to find a job earned a median income of $26,756 before taxes according to 2009 figures (NY Times, 5/11/2011). Wages have not significantly improved across any education level over the past two years (Economic Policy Institute, 8/31,2011).
Because interest continues to pile on top of preexisting loans, tuitions are increased, grants are slashed, and living-wage jobs are harder to come by, total student debt in the United States has accumulated to $1 trillion, which averages $25,000 of debt per college graduate (USA Today, 10/19/2011). This creates an incredible amount of profit for the financial institutions that provide these high-interest loans, particularly if borrowers default. This is nothing short of a mass-scale robbery - a transfer of wealth from the pockets of the 99% to the 1%.
Young people are not responding to these injustices by throwing in the towel. Movements to reclaim education for the masses have sprouted up in California, Chile, and the U.K. The Occupy Student Debt Campaign has been launched nationwide, where protesters pledge to withhold payments on their student loans as soon as 1 million people have signed the pledge (occupystudentdebtcampaign.org). The campaign aims to abolish all current student debt, secure interest-free student loans, and create transparency in the financial activities of for-profit and private universities. Students will never be able to repay these loans given wages that are inadequate to meet even the most basic needs. The non-repayment action needs to be so monumental that the government would be forced to cancel the debts which the banks have already massively profited from.
The campaignís most significant demand is to make tuition free at public colleges and universities as a government provision. This would cost about $70 billion annually, which could conveniently be covered by ending Bush-era tax cuts ($80 billion per year) or cracking down on the amount of unaccountable Pentagon spending ($70 billion per year) (occupystudentdebtcampaign.org). If Kenya, Brazil, Argentina, Sri Lanka, and many European countries can provide free tertiary education, why canít the richest country in the history of the world?
The Strategies We Need
There are of course dangers to defaulting on student loans. Since student loans are federally guaranteed, collection agencies can seize payments from paychecks, tax refunds, and Social Security. There is no statute of limitations, and defaulting could wreck a personís credit history (MSNBC, 10/26/2011).
The most effective way to overcome these challenges is for the campaign to appeal for support from teachers, communities, organized labor, and social movements. The campaign cannot be effective as an isolated, online action, but must be backed by well-coordinated in-person organizing meetings to build solidarity and mass actions, such as protests and strikes. This will harness the power of the entire working class behind the next generation of youth. The larger the number of participants in the campaign and the more layers of support it encompasses, the more the government and banks will be forced to yield to its demands, and the less likely protesters will be punished for defaulting. Otherwise, small-scale non-repayment actions will only result in a life of ruined credit or worse for those participating in the campaign.
While fighting for these reforms, we must also look to change the entire capitalist system which allows the 1% to rake in huge profits from education, health care, and other social goods as it simultaneously thrives on the economic and social disempowerment of youth and the rest of the 99%. Big banks and corporations will continue their attacks on education due to the crisis of capitalism if the underlying imbalanced power structure is not dissolved.
The youth who ignited the Arab Spring were propelled by dehumanizing living conditions which have spread globally, including to the United States, where youth unemployment has reached its highest levels in the 60 years the data has been tracked (Economic Policy Institute, 4/20/2011). Occupy Wall Street itself was a youthful movement that grew out of anger against the 1% in causing the economic crisis and making the 99% pay for it, and has now expanded its scope to occupying student debt, home foreclosures, prisons, and more.
Youth have always been and continue to be at the forefront of social and political struggles, and indeed they can use the Occupy Student Debt Campaign to collectively organize wider layers of society to fight back against not only student debt but also the increasing inequality and human crises we all face under capitalism.