Debt: What It Is and Why We Fight It
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We should not be ashamed. When people come out and talk about it, it’s a really powerful thing. We need to stop treating it as a personal failing. It is not a personal failing; it is a political issue.
Taylor: Brian Kalkbrenner is our representative from Occupy Student Debt. He’s also indebted—he has first-hand experience. I’d like to know, why now? A lot of us have been in student debt for years, and wondered why nobody was talking about it. Why is this issue suddenly on the public radar?
Brian Kalkbrenner: That’s a good question. I’m part of the Occupy Student Debt campaign, which came out of the Empowerment and Education working group, which Nicholas Mirzoeff spoke about earlier. I am a student debtor. It’s funny, because four months ago I was talking with a friend of mine who got me involved in this campaign, and we were talking about this very thing. There’s a ready-made population to be radicalized in student debtors. Everybody I know suffers from it. When I talk to people—even if they have nothing to do with OWS, they’re not radical people, they’re not activists—I talk to them about this campaign and instantly they say, “Oh man, student loans are so fucked.” Everybody knows this is a problem.
So why now? I don’t know; I can’t really answer it. But I want to talk a little bit about some of the stats around student debt. Graduating seniors in 2010 carried an average debt of $25,000, while unemployment for that same group was at 9.1 percent. College tuition has increased more than 400 percent since the 1980s, with no appreciable increase in wages or inflation; it outstrips inflation. The debt default rate at for-profit institutions is 29 percent, and more than half of the student population at these for-profit colleges is African American or Latino. It’s a problem that affects the whole spectrum. Student loan debts are exceptional in that they’re afforded no protections. Student debtors are not protected from bankruptcy; student loan debt can follow you to the grave. As of 2005, benefits like Social Security can be garnished, which is unprecedented. It’s very easy for loans to double or triple in a period of ten years—you fall behind on a payment, suddenly there’s this whole chain of fees that is triggered, and you’re sort of like underwater trying to get back, just recovering those fees, and then you start paying the interest, let alone getting to the principal.
All that is to say that student loans are predatory loans. And, you know, it’s not a privilege. There’s a view like, “Well, you know what you’re getting into, taking out student loans, this is a privilege problem.” It’s not a privilege problem, for several reasons. One is that a college degree has become a prerequisite in a knowledge economy. You have to take on student loan debt to get this degree, but then you graduate with this debt increasingly into an economy where you can’t get a job. So you’re already in a position of indenture-tude. The Occupy Student Debt campaign launched a few weeks ago, and it centers around a student debt pledge of refusal.
The pledge begins, “As members of the most indebted generations in history, we pledge to stop making student loan payments after one million of us have signed this pledge.” There’s also a pledge for faculty supporters; there’s a pledge for non-debtors, a non-debtor pledge of support. Pledges in the campaign are based around four principles: 1) That the federal government should cover the cost of tuition at public colleges and universities, which incidentally would be a price tag of about $70 billion, which is a paltry sum actually—it sounds like a lot but it’s not. 2) We believe that student loans should be interest-free. 3) We believe that private and for-profit colleges and universities, which are largely financed through student debt, should open their books. So these for-profit universities and private schools like the New School and NYU, they’re financed through student debt, and yet their operations are a private matter. They’re not a matter of public record. And finally, 4) the current student debt load should be written off.