Will the Young Rise Up and Fight Their Indentured Servitude to the Student Loan Industry?
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In October 2011, the White House announced, “Currently, more than 36 million Americans have federal student loan debt.” By the end of 2011, student loan debt had exceeded $1 trillion . Two-thirds of college seniors graduate with student loans, including over 62 percent of public university graduates. According to the Project on Student Loan Debt , they carried an average of $25,250 in debt in 2010, but many have far greater debt than that average. And nowadays, with high unemployment, even higher underemployment, the inability to pay bills, and accumulating interest and penalties, the lives of student loan debtors can quickly turn into financial nightmares.
Indentured Servitude? I’ll be paying for my student loans for the rest of my life....A large portion of my earnings goes to the Wall Street elites that have commoditized and securitized my loans....I knew at the time I signed the student loans (again and again) that I would be responsible...what I didn’t figure was the cost to my children —Jeff Vincent, AlterNet
How outlandish is it to say that the spirit of indentured servitude has been revived in the United States? What can young people and their parents do to prevent student loan debt servitude, and what can all of us do to help liberate student loan debtors who are currently doomed to decades of financial misery?
Colonial Indentured Servants and Modern Student Loan Debtors
In colonial America, historians estimate that between one-half and two-thirds of white immigrants arrived as indentured servants. Indentured servants in England were in servitude typically for one year, while indenture in America was typically four to seven years. Today in the United States, student debt is an even longer debt commitment than colonial indentured servitude. The standard Stafford federal loan is, for example, 15 years, and with waivers and refinancing, it is not uncommon for Americans to be paying off student loans well into middle age.
In “ Student Debt and the Spirit of Indenture ,” Carnegie Mellon University professor Jeffrey Williams concludes, “College student loan debt has revived the spirit of indenture for a sizable proportion of contemporary Americans.” Williams points out that college loan debt, like indentured servitude, “looms over the lives of those so contracted, binding individuals for a significant part of their future work lives.”
Similar to students signing their college loan papers, indentured servants also “freely chose” their servitude. In colonial times, while the elite saw indentured servitude as a freely chosen and fair economic deal, the servants themselves routinely saw it as an exploitative system of labor, a form of time-limited slavery. Like colonial indentured servants who “freely chose” to sign papers agreeing that they would pay off their debt directly in labor, modern student loan debtors “freely choose” to sign papers agreeing to pay off their debt. However, this is a choice that the financial elite do not have to make.
Like colonial indentured servitude, the student loan contract is virtually unbreakable. Student loans are enforced by garnishing wages, and unlike most other forms of debt, student loan debt is almost never forgiven even in personal bankruptcy.
Similar to some indentured servants, some student loan debtors—most famously, Michelle and Barack Obama—do go on to prosper. However, half of those who attend college don’t graduate, and many college graduates do not get high-paying jobs and struggle to make debt payments for much of their adult lives.
The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 20, 2010) reported, “Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants....The growing disconnect between labor market realities and the propaganda of higher-education apologists is causing more and more people to graduate and take menial jobs or no job at all.”