The Education Spring Goes To College

Jeff Bryant

A nationwide rebellion to K-12 education policies that emerged in the spring of 2013 brought to the fore widespread grievances that students, parents, teachers, and citizens have with top down mandates that are ruining public schools.

This Education Spring was fueled by unified concerns arising from every corner in the country that neighborhood schools are being deprived of essential resources, low-income children are being victimized by unequal distribution of education supports they need, parents and voters are locked out of school governance, and new education policies being put in place are driven by corruption.

Since then, the groundswell has grown and spread to become an influential factor in electoral contests and governmental decision-making. And influential community groups have been established across the country to nurture the movement and perpetuate the calls for education justice.

The Education Spring has become an influential force in higher education, too.

The popular groundswell of grievances with higher education policy differs in some important ways from what’s driving anger in the K-12 community. Particularly egregious is how government disinvestment in higher education has coupled with a predatory loan policy to hike college student debt levels to an unimaginable $1.3 trillion. But the unifying theme is the same – that We the People – not political ideologues, bureaucrats, or corporate profiteers – should be in control of our education destinies.

Now, a dozen influential national groups are leading the charge to urge federal lawmakers to cancel all student debt. A petition they’ve posted has drawn thousands of signatures and more people are signing every day.

The impetus behind the call to erase college debt is best articulated by Mary Green Swig, Steven L. Swig, and my colleague Rickard Eskow with the Campaign for America’s Future. Writing at The Huffington Post, they argue for “a comprehensive solution” to student loan debt: Let’s abolish it.

They write, “Rather than address the cost of education, the root cause of the problem, the government became the primary lender for student debt, a move which contributed to runaway costs and crippling indebtedness. As a result, student debt is now the second-largest form of personal debt in this country, exceeding credit card debt and trailing only home mortgages. Student debt is a dark betrayal at the heart of the American promise, and it must come to an end.”

More recently the Swigs, again with Eskow, put the argument to abolish student loan debt in the context of the “Corinthian 15,” a group of former students of Corinthian College, a for-profit higher education corporation that specializes in scamming students into building up college loan debts while earning degrees that often lead to low paying jobs or no jobs at all. Last month, the students wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Education demanding that the federal government forgive their loans and the loans of thousands of other students who attended Corinthian’s schools.

They point to the strife the Corinthian students have been put through as yet another example of “the injustice of a system that gives defrauding corporations more legal rights and flexibility than it grants to student debt holders.”

They declare, “We believe that today’s student debt has become an unjust burden, not just on individuals, but on society as a whole. We believe it’s morally wrong to burden so many young people with crushing debt as the “cost of entry” into the working world, especially when they are entering the worst job market for college graduates in modern history … We’ll become a better nation when we forgive all student debt.”

The push to abolish student loan debt and make high-quality higher education available for all is taking many forms across the country.

As the progressive news outlet Nation of Change recently reported, “A rumble of legitimate discontent is mounting from the 40 million Americans saddled with student debt … The most frustrated students are blocking highways over tuition hikes. Others are launching ‘debt strikes’ by refusing to pay the for-profit schools that bilked them. Many more are defaulting after facing the stressful realization that they can’t find a job that pays enough to repay their debt. Over half of outstanding student loans are presently in deferral, delinquency, or default.”

In North Carolina, students and activists are fighting back against a recent move by the college governing body in that state to cap what colleges can contribute to student financial aid. A recent op-ed in the Raleigh News and Observer explains, “The UNC Board of Governors, led by a new majority, has dictated that no public college may dedicate more than 15 percent of tuition revenue to financial aid. No other university spending is limited in this way.” The op-ed authors, a senior at Fayetteville State and a recent graduate of the University of Virginia, point out how this will severely inhibit colleges from providing access to low-income students.

They remind, “When the University of Virginia tried to cut grant aid to low-income families last year, alumni and students led a grassroots campaign directed at Virginia’s Board of Governors. Over 8,000 petition signatures, letters from state legislators, school boards, civil rights groups and on-campus student protests combined to get UVa to shift course. We need to see the same kind of support for college affordability in North Carolina.”

Such a petition effort is indeed underway. The petition at states, “The decision to cap aid was made over the summer without student input. North Carolina should be doing the opposite – supporting talented, striving students seeking an affordable, quality college education and engaging in an open, inclusive decision-making process.”

On a new website, proponents of the petition effort call for cap on student loan amounts rather than a cap on tuition aid.

In California, a proposal to increase college tuition sparked widespread protests, including student walkouts and boisterous demonstrations, including one in which “some students took off their shirts and threw fake money” at the regents pushing the increases,” according to one local report. “You are taking the shirts off our backs,” the students shouted.

Across the country in Wisconsin, a similar rebellion is taking place in response to massive cutbacks to higher education funding being carried out in that state by the administration of Governor Scott Walker and conservative state legislators.

Walker’s budget calls for a 13 percent cut in state aid across the university system, for a total decrease of $300 million over the next two years.

The proposed cuts occurred at the same time his office oversaw an attempt to rewrite the mission statement of the state university system, deleting the words “the search for truth” in the statement, and inserting “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

As The New York Times recently reported, when Walker “presented a budget this month proposing to delete some of its most soaring passages, as well as to sharply cut state aid to the system, he ignited a furious backlash that crossed party and regional lines.”

Even “some Republican lawmakers have expressed concerns about the depth of the proposed cuts,” according to the report.

College students marched on Walker’s home to protest the cuts, and the campus in Milwaukee has been rocked by a series of rallies.

A recent poll found the governor’s approval rating has dropped to the lowest point since protestors stormed the state capital in Madison in 2011.

Some government leaders are listening.

For some time, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has been leading a crusade to relieve college students of their enormous debts and raise government support for higher education tuition. Most recently, she took up the banner to forgive the debts incurred by the Corinthian College students.

In California, Governor Jerry Brown opposes college tuition increases, saying, “I’m the one who has to say no, and I will when I have to.”

Having heard the voices of dissent, President Obama and his administration have taken some initial steps to address the grievances. As The Huffington Post recently reported, Obama recently unveiled a “Student Aid Bill of Rights” that recommends creation of a new “complaint system so grievances filed by students and borrowers are referred to regulators and law enforcement agencies” and new processes to improve services to borrowers and make their loan accounts more “user friendly” and transparent.

“There are moments in history,” write Mary and Steven Swig and Richard Eskow, “when a new idea forms and takes hold.” That idea, that we need to take back control of our education destinies is being pushed to the top of political agendas everywhere. Get behind it.

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