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5 Ways Student Debt Resistance Is Taking Off

As student debt skyrockets, the movement to resist it is spreading.

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To up the ante, Hicks says, "What we're looking at is trying to target a lot of different actors at once." While continuing to pressure the Department of Education to cut Sallie Mae’s contract, Jobs With Justice-American Rights at Work and its allies are organizing retirees to explore the risks of investing pension funds in Sallie Mae, students to pressure their universities to cut their contracts with the company, and legislatures to crack down on predatory lending and fund higher education.

2. Bringing Down Tuition

Student debt could be abolished if there were nothing to pay for in the first place—tuition, room and board, textbooks, and any number of other costs that students shoulder in the name of higher education. Like debt itself, these costs are skyrocketing. Between 2007 and 2012, 48 states reduced funding for higher education. Over the past three decades, the average price of attending college has more than doubled at four-year schools and increased more than 50 percent at two-year schools. Meanwhile, the maximum federal Pell Grant went from covering roughly two thirds of the cost of a four-year college to covering only one third.

While policies on debt and tuition can look different on paper, tackling one often explicitly means tackling the other. This is clearest at 1,000-strong street protests, occupations, sit-ins, strikes, and speakouts, where the imperative of comprehensive free education sets the stage for particular education policies.

As a member of the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) and a staffer for the University of Massachusetts-based Center for Educational Policy and Advocacy (CEPA), Annie Mombourquette has her hand in both jars. Mombourquette's personal story is increasingly typical: in addition to being a student, she works for CEPA, a nursing home, an after-school program, and her residence hall. “As far as that's concerned, I did everything right, and education is still unaffordable,” she says. “The calculation is, I'm paying this much money for education, I'm taking on this much debt.”

While SLAP (a subgroup of Jobs With Justice-American Rights at Work) pushes UMass to knock Sallie Mae off its list of recommended loan providers, CEPA is targeting UMass' tuition and fees. This spring, CEPA joined students from throughout the UMass system to push the state to appropriate enough higher education funding to cover half of UMass's operating costs. In turn, UMass opted not to raise tuition and fees for the first time in a decade. Now, UMass students are pushing to reduce these costs while teaming up with community college students to strengthen affordability and access.

In Oregon, tuition policy has taken an inventive turn. In July, the state legislature voted unanimously to instruct the state's Higher Education Coordinating Committee to put together a pilot plan for “Pay It Forward,” which replaces tuition with an income-based fee that students pay after they graduate. Since then, other states have moved forward with similar legislation.

While Pay It Forward was designed by students at Portland State University and pushed through the legislature with the support of the Working Families Party, support from progressive advocates is less than unanimous. A slate of groups, including some of the party's allies from the Sallie Mae campaign, cite concerns that the plan will end up costing students more in the long term and incentivize colleges to peg student recruitment and program funding to post-graduate earning prospects. In defense, the party notes the importance of writing safeguards into the legislation and reasserts its commitment to fighting for increased higher education funding.

3. Organizing (Indebted) Workers

By definition, debt hits students after they're students. Organized labor, which covers a swath of the post-student population, is in a unique position to tackle it.