With a rash of recent publications in the mainstream media, it’s clear that the first stage of the Occupy Student Debt campaign has been accomplished: to raise awareness and make this a national issue. Now it’s time to start working on promoting the solutions to debt that the media still shy away from: Jubilee, free public higher education and transparent private sector financing.
I’m going to give three examples of student debt becoming more visible, two of which are personal in the Occupy tradition of representing yourself first and foremost. My awareness of student debt was raised when Ruth Gilmore, as president of the American Studies Association, challenged us to find out more about how our students worked (for money) and their levels of debt. My eyes were opened to the crisis around me.
Even before OWS, I had crafted what I’d now call a community agreement with my students, stressing attendance and participation, week-long “due dates” on assignments, giving credit for collaborative projects, having no cumulative assessments and so on. I think it has proved very successful, judging from the evaluations. Nonetheless, let’s be clear: debt is an educational crisis, one in which the experience of financing is the dominant one of “college,” not learning. I’m close to a point where I can’t envisage how to do this ethically at all.
These stories were the starting point for the TEDx talk I gave a few weeks ago. Here’s the video, which you’re welcome to use although the quality of the sound and images is not quite as high as I would have hoped.
The next item across the media transom is an essay by Thomas Franks in the current issue of Harper’s Magazine (paywall). Franks tells the now familiar story of student debt for the mainstream liberal audience of Harper’s. Then he gives it a twist. He quotes an anecdote from David Graeber, in which Graeber describes how one of his former students is now working as an escort on Wall Street to pay back her student debt. She’s literally getting screwed by the system. Franks ends the piece with a quote from what remains the most accessed post in my writing project:
I used to say that in academia one at least did very little harm. Now I feel like a pimp for loan sharks.
What’s interesting about this citation is that when I used the line at an NYU faculty meeting, Andrew Ross, who’s been a lion-hearted organizer of Occupy Student Debt, took care to point out he didn’t quite want to go that far. Whereas I tend to go for it, Andrew looks to sustaining coalitions–so this is no knock on him. That was a few weeks ago. Now this quote is good enough to go into public libraries all over the country.
And if you have a Facebook you’ll know that the New York Times today published a long anecdotal article on student debt in their “please give us a Pulitzer Prize” format. The piece is fine at the level of showing how difficult it has become for many people to afford college. It’s strong on the J-School 101 theme “personalize the story” with wholesome, middle-class white kids from Ohio being used to illustrate the ongoing disaster that student debt has become.
It’s weak on analysis and deficient on political context. For example, it’s true that 3% of borrowers owe more than $100,000 as the Times says: would it not be more compelling to spell that out? One million people owe more than $100K. There’s a strange formulation about debt patterns at private schools, which range, they say from:
under $10,000 at elite schools like Princeton and Williams College, which have plenty of wealthy students and enormous endowments, to nearly $50,000 at some private colleges with less affluent students and less financial aid.
Anyone who knows anything about student debt knows that students at Ivy Leagues and elite schools can be just as way over their heads as people at other private institutions. I could give you stories from each of my own classes–see the TEDx above.
Even more bizarrely a federal official is quoted as suggesting that student debt is like the mortgage crisis:
Mr. Date likened excessive student borrowing to risky mortgages. And as with the housing bubble before the economic collapse, the extraordinary growth in student loans has caught many by surprise.
While student debt can and does ruin lives, it is almost impossible to default on in a permanent fashion. Lenders can and do take money from unemployment benefit and Social Security. There are no bankruptcy provisions for student debt and you can’t be foreclosed on. Default and delinquency rates are up, yes–but the lenders are doing so well out of the interest rates that they won’t ever really lose money.
It’s on solutions that the piece really falls down. It seems to suggest only that the costs of college be made clearer to applicants and that students need to make choices compatible with their resources not their aspirations. There’s a bit of a suggestion that states might want to raise their support for their higher education institutions and some thought from the Republican governor of Ohio that the universities are to blame for wanting to be good in all areas. Funny, I thought that was the point of a university.
Nowhere is there a discussion about activist calls for debt abolition, a Jubilee, free public higher education, a return to education as a top priority in private schools, private school accountability and the other goals of the Occupy Student Debt movement. Now we have to move quickly to advance that agenda so that pious lamentations about student debt don’t become an election year formula, crowding solutions out of public discussion.