Occupy Student Debt?
BY DAN ALLOSSO
I just received an email with a link in it to a campaign associated with the Occupy movement, called the “Occupy Student Debt Campaign.” (http://occupystudentdebtcampaign.com/ ) This website seems to originate in New York City — at least they had an event recently at the Red Sculpture in Zuccotti Park and another later in the afternoon at Madison Square Park. They call attention to a number of important issues surrounding student loans and the “debt bondage” that can accompany higher education for many people. But, like so much of the Occupy movement, just when it seems to be getting somewhere, it stops making sense.
What are the valid points? Here’s one: Education is a social good and its cost is small relative to other things America spends its money on. According to the Department of Education, the cost of providing free tuition to everybody currently enrolled in two- and four-year colleges and universities would be about $70 billion. The Pentagon loses about this much money in unaccountable spending every year (not to mention the astronomical amounts of money they spend that they DO account for). Ending the Bush tax cuts on the rich would add $80 billion to the national budget, which would easily fund every student in America’s tuition expense.
The Occupy campaign also suggests that the “debt bondage” that students are forced to assume, in order to go to school, amounts to a new form of indenture. And they single out private and for-profit institutions, saying that students have a “fundamental right to know how their tuition dollars are being allocated and spent.” They say that higher education is not only a social good, but that “Education at all levels — pre-K through Ph.D. — is a right.”
The “Debtors’ Pledge” which people are being asked to sign says that students “pledge to stop making student loan payments after one million of us have signed this pledge.” On the website’s homepage (but nowhere else) there’s a link to a disclaimer that specifies that this is a “nonbinding pledge of refusal, which is not a call to immediate default,” and that under the current “reprehensible laws, which this campaign aims to change, defaulting on debt obligations may risk your (and co-signor’s) credit rating and history, and may cause your assets to be seized.” The disclaimer ends by suggesting that before “making any ultimate decision…consider seeking independent advice.”
In other words, they’re just kidding. And furthermore, when you default and find out you can’t get many jobs and will never be able to buy a house, don’t go crying to them. They have no skin in the game. It’s all on you, student.
It gets sillier. There’s also a “Faculty Pledge of Support,” in which professors can state that they “can no longer acquiesce to the ruinous impact on our students of the surging cost of higher education.” Faculty, like the students, affirm the four principles of the movement and pledge to “urge our unions and professional organizations to recognize this campaign of moral support for the debt refusers.” Nowhere, however, do faculty members pledge to take a pay-cut or work in other ways to lower the “surging cost” of college.
Am I just being a cranky old fart, objecting to this? Student debt is a problem, students are vulnerable, and people are making fortunes on them. So what’s my problem? Well, actually, it’s the seriousness of the issue that makes me so frustrated about the approach the Occupy campaign is taking, which I think makes it seem like a bunch of privileged kids and their professors whining.
I want to try to look at the specific principles of the campaign, from where I stand. First, all education should be thought of as a right. Pre-K through Ph.D. Really? Headstart programs, which demonstrably improve learning for thousands of kids at a critical time in their development, are only as valuable to society as yet another humanities Ph.D. — say mine for example? I think not. Next, “the federal government should cover the cost of tuition at public colleges and universities”? As they stand? With the ridiculously high costs of faculty and administration that are bleeding the system dry intact? We should just transfer that cost to the federal government, as is?
Next, “any student loan should be interest-free”? Really? For any student? The grad student from a wealthy family who’s pursuing an esoteric topic of interest to ten people on the planet just as much as the GI who’s just done three tours and had a leg blown off? And finally, “the current student debt load should be written off”? Okay, yeah, we wrote off the auto industry’s losses, and we financed the criminals on Wall Street. Why do they get breaks like that, when students, mortgage-holders, and other regular people are told they have to pay their debts? But is the solution really to jump into bed with Goldman Sachs, or would we be better off if we started making them pay their fair share?
There’s one other principle, that I didn’t object to: “Private and for-profit colleges and universities, which are largely financed through student debt, should open their books.” Yes, they should. So should public institutions, which are also largely financed by student debt. We should look much more closely at where our education dollars go, both as individuals spending on our own degrees and as a society. We should ask ourselves if we’re getting our money’s worth, and decide what to do if we’re not. Perpetuating the status quo and just saying we’re going to walk away from paying for it is not the answer.