The American higher education system is broken: between predatory student lenders, rapacious for-profit colleges, skyrocketing tuition rates and the number of people taking on a lifetime’s worth of debt before they can legally drink, the current system is not sustainable. Instead of providing a ladder to a better life, higher education too often reinforces class- and race-based disparities. And our government is not doing anything to provide relief to students even in the most egregious cases. What we really need is a revolution.
Individually, debt can be overwhelming and isolating. Together, given the fact Americans collectively owe over $1.2tn in student loans, we may be able to overwhelm and transform the system. It’s time to believe in power in numbers: You are not a loan.
I’m part of the Debt Collective, a new group associated with the Rolling Jubilee, the debt-buying and -abolishing campaign that emerged out of Occupy Wall Street. Our campaign has brought us in contact with thousands of students who are distressed and outraged by what is happening not just at for-profit lending factories like Corinthian Colleges Inc, but inside the faulty, overpriced American education system more broadly. To date, our small, scrappy, all-volunteer initiative has provided more direct relief to current and former Corinthian students than state and federal agencies combined. But our work on behalf of every US college student – and would-be college student – is just beginning.
For instance, on Election Day, Debt Collective organizers joined Mackenzie Vasquez, Latonya Suggs, Christopher Miller and half a dozen other former students of Everest College (a for-profit school owned by Corinthian) to a rare public hearing on student debt. “Corinthian profits from poverty,” Vasquez said from behind the dais in Washington. “They sold me a dream and gave me a nightmare.”
Suggs, a single mother from Cincinnati who dreams of being a lawyer, handed over her graduation cap in protest. Miller, an Army veteran whose chest was festooned with medals, looked education undersecretary Ted Mitchell in the eye and asked, “Do you have any honor and dignity?”
Despite mounting evidence of malfeasance at the Corinthian chain and various criminal probes and lawsuits, over half a million students remain on the hook. They’re expected to make timely debt repayments – even though the company tricked them into signing the dotted line – and potential enrollees are still being encouraged to max out their eligibility for federally-backed student loans. For-profit colleges enroll only about 12% of America’s college students, but they take in over a quarter of all federal financial aid, or around $33bn a year. Those grants and loans line the already fat pockets of executives and investors at the expense of students who get worthless degrees and stuck in a debt trap, bound by compound interest.
The US government should discharge all student debt for people who went to Corinthian’s for-profit colleges and their ilk – and it could. Thanks to the Higher Education Act, the Department of Education (DOE) has the discretionary power to erase all federal student debt associated with Corinthian schools, and it doesn’t need permission from a dysfunctional Congress to do so. But the DOE is acting like a debt collector for an unscrupulous lender instead of helping swindled students.
Everyone should be incensed – and not just those students who have been preyed upon by for-profits. For-profits are often presented as the sole “bad apples” in the higher education system, but they are not the outliers that higher education apologists make them out to be. All student debtors deserve a jubilee.
Regardless of the type of school they attend – for-profit, non-profit, public, even online – Americans are graduating in the red. The average US college graduate is burdened by nearly $30,000 in debt, and millions are in default on their student loans. And while individuals are set to lose nearly 20% of their lifetime wealth to college loans, the DOE stands to make a profit of $127bn from college lending over the next decade.
There’s a lot of handwringing about student debt in Washington, but there has been little to no meaningful action. Elizabeth Warren has called for interest rate reductions; President Obama signed an executive order capping payments on federal student debt at 10% of a borrower’s income; there have been some piecemeal attempts to curb the criminal behavior at for-profit schools by strengthening so-called “gainful employment” rules.
These superficial reforms might be better than nothing, but they barely treat the symptom of insidious American loan practices, let alone cure the disease of massive disinvestment in public education at all levels.
Meanwhile, Germany just made tuition free at all public universities – anything less, representatives insisted, would be “unjust”. That’s the kind of big-picture change we need in the US. Our volunteer efforts would become irrelevant, as they are in every other wealthy democratic country that provides public healthcare and education to its citizens.
A real vision of free higher education would resonate with young people, but change won’t come from Democrats on high, no matter how reasonable debt relief and affordable, tuition-free universities may be – and no matter how appealing such a platform might seem to an untapped voting bloc. And even though existing laws might permit it, predatory loans from scam schools won’t be discharged without a mass social movement that puts pressure on elites and scares them silly.
That is the fight we need to wage together: it’s just not about stopping tuition and interest rates for higher education from getting higher. The goal is lowering the bar to zero, so everyone can afford a chance to learn.
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