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Meet 5 Big Lenders Profiting From the $1 Trillion Student Debt Bubble (Hint: You Know Some of Them Already)

As the student movement grows and rallies around the country, we look at the lenders raking in cash off the backs of the U.S.'s students.
 
 
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Underneath the now-iconic red sculpture at Liberty Plaza, now cleared of tents and ringed by barricades plastic-cuffed together, several “students” stood draped in fake chains over their caps and gowns, brandishing debt bills instead of diplomas.

They might have been performing, as part of a press conference unveiling a national student debt refusal pledge, but the dramatization of what happens upon graduation to many of America's students was spot-on. Despite a few moves by the Obama administration in past years and even recent months to lessen the burden of student loans, many graduates are still saddled with more debt than they can conceivably pay back and have little hope of finding a good job in the current economy.

Monday saw protests against tuition hikes on either end of the country; at New York's Baruch College of the City University of New York, the Board of Trustees voted for another tuition hike and according to reports, a student kicked off the day's actions by burning his Sallie Mae student loan bill. UC Davis, responding to the brutal pepper-spraying of students last week, also kept their focus on economic issues, chanting "No cuts, no fees, education must be free," and reportedly shutting down the financial aid building.

The talk of debt refusal or debt strikes, as I reported just recently, has ratcheted up along with the momentum of the Occupy Wall Street movement, as the occupiers made the connection between Wall Street bankers and student debt--right down to the bailouts, as student lenders received a bailout of their own from the federal government, which handed over  billions in taxpayer dollars to the banks and lenders in exchange for loans that could no longer be sold on the secondary market. 

Recent grads with mountains of debt know that without their tax dollars, these big lenders wouldn't continue to exist. They want their loans forgiven or at least written down, and they think the lenders should pay. The principles laid out on the OccupyStudentDebtCampaign site call for free tuition at public universities, an end to interest on student loans, and for private and for-profit institutions to open their books so that students know how their money is being spent. 

As of 2010, the government directly lends up to $31,000 to students for their undergraduate years. Yet that total isn't even a year's tuition at many schools, let alone enough to cover living expenses and textbooks for four full years. As the economic crisis continues to stifle the economy and strangle state budgets, even public universities are seeing tuition hikes—the students pepper-sprayed at UC Davis were protesting a proposed hike in their tuition a full 81% in four years. So many students turn to private lenders to fill the gap between what the government will provide and what they realistically need to pay for school. Though those private lenders no longer get direct government subsidies, many of them still have billions on the books in federally-subsidized debt, and even the private loans (often at variable interest rates, vulnerable to hikes when borrowers can least afford them) still have protections unlike almost any other type of debt, as student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. 

Jon Walker at FireDogLake described the now-defunct federally-subsidized private lending system thus: 

"The Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFEL) was a classic lemon socialism program. It provided a nearly total government guarantee for  'private' student loans. If the loans did well, the large financial companies got the profit, if they didn’t preform, the government socialized the loses. These broken incentives spurred risky behavior from the companies."