Education

A Movement Emerges to Free Former Students from Crushing Loan Debts

Student debt cancellation for 44 million people could usher in the next wave of social change.

Photo Credit: Svitlana Medvedieva / Shutterstock

Every so often, perhaps once or twice in a person’s lifetime, the trajectory of society changes. It happened in the 1930s, when the country found a new sense of shared purpose as it rebuilt itself under the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It happened after World War II, when the era of technological and economic progress seemed as if it would never end. It happened in the 1960s, as large segments of society dedicated themselves to civil rights and social advancement.

It happened along darker lines in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan persuaded many people that government—an instrument of the people—was a hostile and somehow foreign power in our lives.

We think it’s happening again, in a positive way, and we believe that student debt has a key role to play in the next social transformation. As we’ll explain in a moment, a new movement is underway to free more than 44 million people and their families from this debt so that they—and the rest of us—can prosper. But first, some background.

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A New Mood, a New Movement

The United States experienced several decades of growing economic inequality after the nation turned away from its sense of shared purpose and began to celebrate runaway competition and individual greed. Our shared sense of commitment to civil rights fractured as politicians, culminating with Donald Trump, have demagogically exploited race and religion and gender and sexual orientation to break down the communal fabric that is the source of our country’s greatest achievements. Their goal is to distract the public from the widening gap in wealth and income between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of the population.

But there are signs of a new social shift all around us, as hopeful as the early signs of spring. The Occupy movement was one of its early harbingers, and millions of people came together around the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders.

In the wake of the 2016 election, we saw more signs of social shift: in the Women’s March, a global phenomenon where millions affirmed their positive values after Donald Trump’s inauguration; in the protests against Trump’s Muslim ban; in movements like Indivisible that are fighting to elect better candidates; and in the inspiring example of the Parkland high school students’ movement for saner gun policies.

We’ve also seen signs of a political shift in the public’s changing attitude toward issues like Medicare for All and the $15 minimum wage. Policies that were once considered outside the political spectrum are now part of mainstream debate.

Each of these signs reflects a deep undercurrent of change. The Occupy and Sanders movements reflect a renewed commitment to economic justice and basic principles of fairness. The Women’s March and protests against the Muslim ban reaffirmed the worth of every human being. Efforts like Indivisible affirm democracy, Medicare for All and the minimum wage movement affirm the principles of community, and the Parkland protests affirm life itself.

Free the 44 Million

We believe student debt cancellation is the issue that will usher in the next wave of social change. We’ve been working on this issue for several years. In that time, we have seen an even greater shift in attitude than we would have thought possible. When we began, the idea of canceling student debt and allowing the 44 million Americans who hold it to prosper was considered outside the pale.

“We can’t afford it,” people would tell us.

A recent report from the Levy Institute found that the opposite is true. Using widely accepted models, economists Stephanie Kelton, Marshall Steinbaum, Scott Fullwiler, and Catherine Ruetschlin found that canceling this debt would actually boost economic growth and create more than a million new jobs.

“It’s impractical,” people said.

That’s not true, either. Roughly 95 percent of this debt is held by the federal government. That means we, the people, can cancel it at any time. The remaining debt could be purchased by the federal government and canceled.

People also told us that canceling student debt would create what economists call “moral hazard.” If people know that this debt has been forgiven in the past, the logic goes, they’ll accumulate more of it in the expectation that the new debt will be forgiven too.

There’s a way to solve that, too. As more and more Americans are beginning to realize, every young person in this country should have access to a tuition-free college education. This was once available to many, if not most, students across the country. Public universities in states like New York and California were available at low or no tuition cost. Land-grant colleges, dating back 150 years or more, also provided tuition-free education. What was done before can be done again. All it takes to restore and expand tuition-free public college is the will to build a sustainable future.

The Trap

In fact, today’s burgeoning student debt only exists because our country abandoned the principle that young people who are willing to work hard should have access to higher education, regardless of their economic circumstances.

As low- or no-tuition education was taken away, a new and insidious mechanism was put in place. Students and their families were told to take on personal debt to pay for their education. They were told that higher wages and greater opportunity would allow them to earn back that cost and pay off their debt.

It wasn’t true. Instead, generations of young people have been trapped in a system that lures them in and then charges them exorbitant interest. They are exploited by debt servicers and hamstrung by years of weak job opportunities for young graduates. In addition, many people were misled by nefarious private for-profit colleges and training programs. This exploitation has hit minority communities especially hard.

It’s time to cast off that trap and set them free. To make sure it doesn’t happen again, young people must once again have the opportunity to attend public universities on a tuition-free basis. The movement for debt-free college education is a sister project to our goal of student debt cancellation.

The Age of Community

The Levy Institute report has had a major impact on the political conversation. Colorado Rep. Jared Polis cited it when he drafted a new bill that would cancel all student debt and reverse the Republican tax giveaway to billionaires and corporations.

Today, Rep. Polis’s bill has gained a number of cosponsors from across the country. They include Representatives Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Ro Khanna of California, Carolyn Maloney of New York, Bobby Scott of Virginia, Pramila Jayapal of Washington, and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.

The bill has gained at least one major detractor, too. Donald Trump told the country what he thought in a tweet (how else?). On Memorial Day, when presidents have traditionally led the nation in solemn remembrance of those who gave their lives in battle for their country, Trump tweeted this:

“A Democratic lawmaker just introduced a bill to Repeal the GOP Tax Cuts (no chance). This is too good to be true for Republicans...Remember, the Nancy Pelosi Dems are also weak on Crime, the Border and want to be gentle and kind to MS-13 gang members…not good!”

Trump is the avatar of the Age of Selfishness—an age we believe is about to give way to the Age of Community. He is the final, most extreme reflection and force of that selfish age. We believe that people across this country understand that our nation works best when we act together: to come out of the Great Depression, to fight fascism in Europe, to build postwar prosperity with highways across the land and rockets to the moon.

One of the greatest efforts of that postwar era was also education-related. The G.I. bill made education available to every returning soldier: rich or poor, Northern or Southern, white or black—although, tragically, racism prevented some African-American veterans from taking advantage of it. The G.I. bill contributed to a postwar era of prosperity.

As Stephanie Kelton has pointed out, the total amount of student debt in this country is roughly the same as the tax giveaway Trump and the Republicans gave to corporations and the already wealthy. There is symmetry in that. The tax bill was an expression of the Age of Selfishness. Repealing it and canceling student debt, as Polis’s bill would do, is an excellent way to welcome the new Age of Community.

Freedom to Prosper

As the call to cancel student debt grows across the country, a new organization has been formed in response. Freedom to Prosper (www.freedomtoprosper.org) is dedicated to building support for freeing 44 million Americans, along with their families and communities, from the student debt trap.

The Freedom to Prosper website offers the vision of an America without student debt. It also provides information on the nature of the problem and offers visitors a chance to join the movement and get involved.

Freedom to Prosper is a community-oriented movement. It seeks to bring us all together: people from all walks of American life, including those who went to college and those who didn’t. Studies have shown that when there are more college graduates in a community, everybody’s wages go up. That includes non-college-educated workers.

By growing the economy and creating a million-plus jobs, the student debt cancellation movement will help everyone in this country. It will reflect and promote the new Age of Community, a win-win proposition for all Americans. And it will end the decades-long injustice of the student loan trap, freeing all of us to prosper.

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Mary Green Swig is a senior fellow at the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University and co-founder of Freedom To Prosper.

Steven Swig is a senior fellow at the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University, co-founder of Freedom to Prosper and co-founder and president emeritus of the Presidio Graduate School.

RJ Eskow is a senior fellow with the Campaign for America's Future.