It’s a demand straight from a protest sign: Cancel all student debt. The call has made its way from the streets to Congress, from pipe dream to policy proposal.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have introduced the College for All Act of 2019, which not only provides for free public higher education but also would cancel all outstanding student loans.
“Since the day I announced my run for Congress, I was asked over and over again: Why is Washington ignoring this crisis? What will you do to fix it? And I promised I would do everything in my power to end the scourge of student debt once and for all,” Omar says of her bill, which would turn nearly a decade’s worth of work from activists into the law of the land.
The bill is a recognition, expanding on the proposal already put forth by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), that indebted Americans are a core political constituency. They have been dismissed before, written off as fringe weirdos who are also too middle-class to matter. But their organizing has outflanked mainstream politicians and pundits before and should not be underestimated.
Student debt, alongside mortgage debt, is perhaps the defining issue of the post-2008 crisis years. And while the foreclosure wave eventually slowed, student debt has only continued to grow. Activists marked “1-T day” on April 25, 2012, the day when the total amount of student debt topped $1 trillion. Today that number is past $1.5 trillion, an illustration of the way the financialization of the economy has cannibalized the future for the short-term profits of a few today.
The fight began with protests of tuition and student fee hikes in California in 2009 and Britain in 2010, as well as Quebec in 2012, where student strikers began wearing red squares, a symbol of being “carrément dans le rouge,” or squarely in the red. But it was during Occupy Wall Street that Americans began to understand the pervasiveness of debt. The occupations became a place in which those who had graduated from the easy organizing space of the campus could talk about the realities of making $300, $400 or $500 monthly payments on a barista’s wage. The movement’s culture encouraged a kind of consciousness-raising wherein participants could move beyond the pervasive shame that debt usually brings.
The group that eventually became the Debt Collective, an organization that brings debtors together to use their debt itself as leverage, began at Occupy. Organized debtors from Corinthian colleges took the step, first imagined with the Occupy Student Debt Campaign’s “Pledge of Refusal,” of refusing to pay their loans when the for-profit school they’d attended collapsed. “Our first union of for-profit college debtors has won over $1 billion in debt relief in both Democratic and Republican administrations,” says Hannah Appel, a co-founder of the collective. “In other words, collective action works, regardless of who is in power.”
The educated, indebted and underemployed have provided the base of Sanders’s presidential campaign and the movement that brought Omar and Jayapal to Congress. They are continually called “middle-class,” as if the college degree they earned isn’t the millstone keeping them from being able to do what earlier generations could: move out, buy a home and so on. Their supposed middle-classness is harped on by debt cancellation’s opponents, who claim it isn’t progressive because it helps more than just poor people.
But they misunderstand the scale of the problem. Laura Hanna, the collective’s co-director, says, “We need to cancel student debt because charging people to pay out of pocket for what should be a public good is a policy failure. It has been a disaster. As federal and state governments cut funding to education, they shifted the burden to students and families. We must address this policy failure not by tinkering around the edges and deciding who should still bear the burden of this mistake, but by canceling all the debt and making college free.”
Besides, she points out, “There are no billionaires walking around with student loan debt.”
The people who Paul Mason called “the graduates with no future” are now a desirable political base. Joe Biden may scorn them as kids who want it easy, but Omar, Jayapal and Sanders — along with Warren, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and others — understand their anger is rooted in reality. (Omar and Ocasio-Cortez are themselves still paying off their student debts.) As author Keir Milburn wrote in “Generation Left,” paraphrasing theorist Stuart Hall, “Age is currently one of the key modalities through which class is lived.”
That said, the Debt Collective strikers remind us that debt isn’t just a problem for the young. For-profit colleges appealed to adults who wanted to make themselves more marketable in the post-2008 hollowed-out economy. “I am not a millennial, and have been screwed by a for-profit college and the government’s student loan system,” said debt striker Kim Bailey. “My children are saddled with debt, and I feel guilty about that. Finally, my granddaughter, who is showing signs of great aptitude for learning, may have to do without a college education if the system doesn’t change drastically.”
Canceling the debt, it has been argued, is an economic stimulus: Freed from the need to make those monthly payments, debtors will instead spend in the real economy, buying homes, computers and even those avocado toasts of a thousand hand-wringing articles. Free college will allow Bailey’s granddaughter to get the education she dreams of.
But beyond that practical argument, it is also a political statement: By abolishing the debt, the foreclosed futures of the indebted are returned to them.
And, before dismissing that statement, mainstream politicians and pundits should remember who’s making it. “The path to full student debt cancellation on which we are now traveling was first forged by debtors themselves,” says Hanna. “Once regarded as unrealistic, their demands for free college and mass debt relief are now mainstream policy goals. Debt Collective members understand what it takes to change the world; they know that regular people will have to work together to see the College for All bill become law — and that is what we intend to do.”