As the 2020 presidential campaign season begins, several candidates have posed questions regarding fundamental economic models of America and shared ideas for platforms of reform.
One such dialog has emerged surrounding student load debt and potential solutions to an economic burden that has eclipsed America’s collective credit card debt. The following, excerpted from The Student Loan Mess: How Good Intentions Created a Trillion-Dollar Problem by Joel & Eric Best, offers one perspective on the student loan crisis, and how a system that was created to benefit students and the country at large has morphed into a behemoth of liability for us all.
An account such as this one—describing someone who trained for a career in a demanding and presumably well-paid profession but who wound up with a debt burden equal to a fifth of his take-home pay (remember that payments above 7 percent are judged “less manageable”), who fell behind in his payments, who left one job in hopes of landing a better-paying one only to find that the job market had dried up, who tried repeatedly to renegotiate the terms of his loan, and who wound up still owing more than twice as much as he’d borrowed—makes harrowing reading. At least for some students, the student loan program, which had been intended to boost opportunities, instead trapped borrowers in inescapable long-term indebtedness, a twenty first-century version of, if not slavery or indentured servitude, at least owing one’s soul to the company store. Tamara Draut, the author of Strapped, called it the “debt-for-diploma system.”
Increasingly, critics argued that the program had lost sight of its purpose, that it operated to protect lenders against losses at the quite literal expense of the borrowers. Thus, an article in Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors, drew parallels between student loans and indentured servitude, and concluded:
College student loan debt perverts the aims of higher education, whether those aims are to grant freedom of intellectual exploration, to cultivate merit and thereby mitigate the inequitable effects of class, or, in the most utilitarian scheme, to provide students with a head start into the adult work world. In practice, debt shackles students with long-term loan payments, constraining their freedom of choice of jobs and career. It also constrains their everyday lives after graduating, as they bear the weight of the monthly tab that stays with them long after their college days.
An NYU professor warned: “Foreclosing the future of young people is a callous act, and a self-destructive path for any society. But allowing Wall Street financiers to feed off their predicament is beyond any moral compass.”
Such critiques could lead to proposals not just to somehow end the reliance on student loans in the future, so as to keep future students from being trapped by crushing debt, but even that existing debts should be forgiven, freeing those burdened by paying off their loans. Why not declare a jubilee, write off the loans, and free up those with loan debt to boost the economy by purchasing homes and other goods? The Occupy Student Debt Campaign (part of the larger Occupy movement) articulated principles that included “free public education, through federal coverage of tuition fees,” “zero-interest student loans, so that no one can profit from them,” and “the elimination of current student debt, through a single act of relief.” The campaign invited borrowers to sign a pledge to withhold loan payments after a million other people had signed.
The Debt Resistor’s Operations Manual declared: “To the financial establishment of the world, we have only one thing to say: We owe you nothing. . . . [E]very dollar we withhold from the collection agency is a tiny piece of our own lives and freedom that we can give back to our communities, to those we love and we respect. These are acts of debt resistance.” The manual’s section on student loans warns: “If we fight this system alone, the best we can hope for is to keep our heads above water. The good news is that those suffering with student debt have begun to organize. Collective action is the only true solution.” In comparison to these far reaching proposals, federal efforts to address crushing student debt fell far short of resolving the third student loan mess.