A new wave of activism against student debt is on the move again this week. The students taking the lead represent the advance guard of an even more massive army that is mobilizing around the idea that higher education should be an investment we make as a society. That new movement is warning that the $1.3 trillion in student debt is not only burdening debtors, it is also a serious drag on our struggling economic system.
Last November, demonstrations erupted on over 125 campuses, as the "Million Student March" surprised the news media with an impressive, nationwide show of force. Today's young people are refusing to accept a status quo that loads them up with student loans in order to pay soaring college tuition costs, only to confront them with a terrible job market that offers low wage jobs and long-term debt peonage, at best.
This Wednesday, April 13, the next round of protests will command the attention of Americans immersed in the 2016 presidential election debate about the future of our country. The demonstrations have four demands:
• Tuition-free public college education
• Cancellation of all student debt
• $15 minimum wage for all campus workers
• Divestment of university endowments from private-prison corporations
We urge people to click here, find a march and join the protest on Wednesday. Then let's take the issue of college costs and student debt to the politicians who desperately want our votes this year. Let's all show up at their town meetings and ask basic questions.
Here's a tool: A t-shirt with this graphic:
Get the t-shirt at IAMASTUDENTDEBTVOTER.ORG. (It’s union made in USA).
Show up at politicians' political events, wearing the shirt. Ask questions about what they would do about student debt. But even if you don't get the microphone – the t-shirt itself will convey the message, especially if a lot of people are wearing it: We Are Student Debt Voters.
This week students are the activists. But many of the 41 million people struggling to pay student loans are the not-so-young people (in the workforce or looking for work) who had to take out loans to get their education and are now trying to make their monthly loan payments while supporting their families. Many are middle-aged parents struggling to help their grown children pay their college loans. As the GAO reports, there are even 706,000 people now on Social Security still paying student loan debt (with 191,000 having their retirement benefits garnished to pay their student loans).
Who doesn't care about student debt? Only those who don't believe in a sustainable future for our country.
In the presidential campaign, even conservative Republican candidates are hearing these demands for relief. For example, New Jersey governor (and former presidential candidate) Chris Christie,
The Washington political newspaper The Hill reported this from Donald Trump:
"One of the biggest questions I get is about student loans," Trump told The Hill. "They're in college -- they're doing well but they've got student loans up to the neck. They're swimming in these loans." He criticized the federal government for earning a profit from federal student loans, a point Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) frequently raises. "I'll see so many young people and they work really hard for four years. They borrowed money. Their parents don't have much. They work all together and they mortgage their future," the real estate magnate said. "They can't get jobs and they don't know what to do." Asked what he would do about the problem, Trump wouldn't go into specifics, but promised he would create jobs if elected president.
Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have heard the grassroots demands for change. Sanders has put forward a plan for tuition-free state universities and colleges. Clinton proposes policies that, while not eliminating tuition, she claims would help students graduate from public universities without debt. They are debating the details: Clinton says her plan would have an income test, "so Donald Trump's kids won't get a free ride," while Sanders, calling a college education a public good" financed by progressive taxes, would allow everyone to study tuition-free, just like high schools -- even though rich kids are likely to attend private schools.
So the politicians are starting to understand and respond to one of our demands: "Tuition-free public college education." And, just as we have seen the minimum-wage Fight for $15 (and a Union) grow from a movement to big legislated victories around the country, we can also start to imagine a day when state colleges and universities educate students without forcing them to go into debt - just as we did in the 1960s and 1970s.
But if we can envision tuition-free public college in the near future, we must ask "What about the millions of students who had no choice but to put themselves into debt to get a college education?" The organizers of the Million Student March understand that we can't leave those "in-betweeners" behind. That would not only be wrong, it would leave a huge burden weighing down on the U.S. economy. So, if we want a healthy, growing economy for today's college graduates (and for people who choose not to go to college), we must get the politicians to address the other major demand of the Million Student March: "Cancellation of all student debt."
We need a Student Debt Jubilee Movement: Ask candidates for president - and also for House and Senate – if they know how many Americans are struggling to pay off student loans (answer: 41 million). Some of them will tell you they want to lower the interest rate on the loans or limit the number of decades people have to keep paying – all good. But let's ask these politicians to consider the huge stimulus to the U.S. economy that would result from giving these 41 million debtors a powerful message: You can stop making those debt payments every month. Ask them to imagine what those young (and not so young) people would do with that reclaimed portion of their incomes: Maybe get married? Buy a house or a car? Decide to start a family – or a new business? Or invest in solar cells on their house?
All of this investment in the future, multiplied by millions, would be a powerful stimulus to the economy, helping insure that our struggling economy doesn't fall back into recession - and creating millions of jobs for the millennials graduating from universities and colleges each spring and summer.
If you think a Student Debt Jubilee is an ambitious goal, it is. Just like $15 and union, it will require a movement to achieve. But in the 1930s, the idea of Social Security took years of organizing to get passed. And when GIs started coming home from World War II, the idea of paying for all who wanted to go to college was also a big, outrageous idea - until a movement led by veterans organizations achieved passage of the GI Bill. That was the most massive increase in college education (and technical training) in our nation's history – and a huge growth stimulus to our shaky post-war economy, empowering a generation of educated leadership for innovative companies and communities.
On Wednesday the young people leading the Million Student March will be launching the same kind of ambitious movement to build America's future. Imagine the world their movement will create when it succeeds. It will be a world where the dreams, talents, ambitions and economic power of a generation – and their parents – will be unburdened from the shackles of the past and set free to improve life for everyone.
Let’s join these young people in their search for a better future – and then take their demands into the political debate.