We Do Have 'Hunger Games' in America: College Loans -- Bernie Sanders and Liz Warren Plan to Stop It

New Jersey Assemblyman John Burzichelli has sponsored a new bill to tackle his state's student debt problem. The text of the legislation reads like a dystopian sequel to Charlie & The Chocolate Factory; under his legislation, New Jersey would use a lottery to tackle student debt.

This isn't the sort of lottery Georgia governor Zell Miller started, designed to bring in enough funding to give a wide swath of students tuition-free college educations and pre-k. Under Burzichelli's bill, New Jersey would hold an actual lottery among students who have debt. The bill asks that, “New Jersey establish a Student Loan Lottery, wherein past and present students having student loans outstanding and benefactors of these students, may purchase lottery tickets for which the proceeds of any winnings are applied exclusively to pay off or reduce the outstanding balance of the winning student's loan or loans.”

In other words, students could pitch in a little money on top of their loans, in the hope they're the lucky winner of the Debt Lottery.

This is the extent to which student loans have turned into a debt nightmare.

Debt for All

The Institute for College Access & Success released a comprehensive report chronicling the student debt load for the class of 2013. This was its topline finding:

In 2013, seven in 10 (69%) graduating seniors at public and private nonprofit colleges had student loans. These borrowers owed an average of $28,400 in federal and private loans combined, up two percent compared to their peers in 2012.

Last year, student debt surpassed credit card debt and auto loans, hitting a total of $1.1 trillion.

This is a marked change from how college used to be in this country. As Pew notes, the “annual borrowing per full-time equivalent student nearly tripled from $2,485 in 1990-91 to $6,928 in 2012-13.” In the 1990-'91 school year, students borrowed $24 billion; from 2012 to 2013, they borrowed $110 billion.

Although states around the country have cut back on tuition assistance and cost controls on colleges have all but disappeared, perhaps the most stark demonstration of this phenomena of moving away from free or affordable college is the state of California.

Dating back to the 19th century, public colleges in California used to be nearly free. Other than fairly modest student fees designed to pay for student services, colleges did not charge any tuition. This changed under Republican governor Ronald Reagan, who introduced a fee that acted as tuition. And this is what happened in the interim, as tuition at the University of California system skyrocketed: 

Noam Chomsky has explained the way in which college debt is a weapon of the right:

"How do you indoctrinate the young? There are a number of ways. One way is to burden them with hopelessly heavy tuition debt. Debt is a trap, especially student debt, which is enormous, far larger than credit card debt. It’s a trap for the rest of your life because the laws are designed so that you can’t get out of it. If a business, say, gets in too much debt it can declare bankruptcy, but individuals can almost never be relieved of student debt through bankruptcy. They can even garnish social security if you default. That’s a disciplinary technique. I don’t say that it was consciously introduced for the purpose, but it certainly has that effect. And it’s hard to argue that there’s any economic basis for it. Just take a look around the world: higher education is mostly free. In the countries with the highest education standards, let’s say Finland, which is at the top all the time, higher education is free. And in a rich, successful capitalist country like Germany, it’s free. In Mexico, a poor country, which has pretty decent education standards, considering the economic difficulties they face, it’s free.

"In fact, look at the United States: if you go back to the 1940s and '50s, higher education was pretty close to free. The GI Bill gave free education to vast numbers of people who would never have been able to go to college. It was very good for them and it was very good for the economy and the society; it was part of the reason for the high economic growth rate. Even in private colleges, education was pretty close to free.

"I went to college in 1945 at an Ivy League university, University of Pennsylvania, and tuition was $100. That would be maybe $800 in today’s dollars. And it was very easy to get a scholarship, so you could live at home, work, and go to school and it didn’t cost you anything. Now it’s outrageous. I have grandchildren in college, who have to pay for their tuition and work and it’s almost impossible. For the students that is a disciplinary technique."

Freeing Us From Debt Bondage

In 2013, a freshman Democratic senator from Masschussetts named Elizabeth Warren decided to shake up the entire higher education debate. She pointed out that the federal government is essentially profiteering from student loans by charging such high interest rates, while it gave loans to Wall Street at near-zero rates.

Slowly, Warren's momentum picked up steam, eventually evolving into a movement taking aim not only at the debt but at the principal: America's skyrocketing tuition costs.

Presidential candidates ranging from Martin O'Malley to Bernie Sanders have put out legislation either abolishing tuition at public colleges altogether or rearranging public finances in a way to dramatically reduce it. The phrase “debt-free college,” promoted first by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, is on the lips of more and more Democrats in Congress.

At a time when college is increasingly becoming a necessity for the American workforce, it is a sad irony that higher education is more expensive than ever. But we are seeing real traction for returning to a time when college is a right, not a privilege, Burzichelli's Hunger Games-esque legislation notwithstanding.

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