Sex & Relationships

Sex Work to Pay Off College Loans? How the College Debt Racket Sucks Young People Dry -- And Led Many to Occupy Wall St.

Student loan debtor: "Kids are told to get this expensive degree and you’ll get a job. You end up owing too much and owning nothing."

The young man standing next to the “Jail Sallie Mae, Cancel All Student Loan Debt” sign in Liberty Plaza last night could very well end up in jail himself – not for protesting economic injustice and marching on Wall Street, but for doing sex work to pay off his student loans. "My loans are $1,300 a month," he said. "My rent is $1,300 a month. My salary is $2,600 a month. You can see the problem. So I work as a prostitute for food and utilities."

Though he works a day job in the tech sector, it’s not enough to get by. "But it could be worse," he continued. "I could have to do sex work for all of it." 

With the Department of Education estimating that outstanding US student loan debt will soon exceed $1 trillion and job growth stalled, students face the very real prospect that there’s no way to ever pay back their debts. As of this May, new graduates are leaving college with an average of $22,900 in debt each, which, according to the Wall Street Journal, makes the class of 2011 the most indebted in history. They are members of a generation of students who knew taking out loans to finance a degree – or two – was a gamble on their own futures. As Lindsay Personett, a recent graduate from Oklahoma City University, put it at Wednesday’s solidarity march to support the Wall Street occupiers, “Kids are told to get this expensive degree and you’ll get a job. You end up owing too much and owning nothing.”  

Wednesday also saw solidarity walk-outs to Occupy Wall Street from hundreds of students from the New School, New York University, Columbia University, and several CUNY campuses. According to CBS Local, 150 students walked out at Brooklyn College to join the tens of thousands in Foley Square and Liberty Plaza. The student walk-outs are part of a larger national walk-out action, supported by, which spanned at least 100 campuses across the US. Their demands go beyond calls for “job creation.” They are questioning the convergence of interests in the education and financial systems that require them to take on soaring, unforgivable, high-interest debt in order to get an education. The Huffington Post reports: 

    "With budget cuts and tuition increases, students' voices are demanding to be heard," said Conor Tomás Reed, 30, a participant in today's walkout. Reed teaches at the City University of New York and is also a student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "It's a collective roar, and students are beyond disgusted and fed up. The time is especially ripe for this kind of mobilization." 

The student walkouts come in the midst of 2012 budget negotiations in Congress, with House Republicans proposing $2.3 billion in cuts to the Federal Pell grant program, which provides need-based grants to low-income students. If the Republican proposal passes, students who attend college less than half-time will no longer be eligible for Pell grants. Inside Higher Ed reports that students of color will be among those hit hardest by the cuts: 

    “Programs for colleges that serve significant numbers of black students (but are not historically black), Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians, and Native Americans would be wiped out, as would federal money for tribal colleges. The budget for Hispanic-serving institutions would be cut 83 percent; historically black colleges and universities would face a 36 percent cut. The budget would also cut all national and community service programs, including AmeriCorps, and programs in international and foreign language education. ” 

Without Pell grants, students who already fight to balance their classes, their jobs and family and caretaking concerns will be left with even fewer options to finance their education. 87% of students with Pell grants already carry loan debt, according to the most recent National Project on Student Debt, conducted in 2008. Students with Pell grants are already the most indebted in the United States, with an average post-graduation debt of $24,800 -- $2,000 more than the national average. Pell grant recipients are up 52% from 2008 to 2011 – from 6.2 million students to 9.3 million students, according to the Department of Education. The increase is “concentrated in the lowest income categories of students,” said Under Secretary Martha Kanter, testifying before the House this March. “The economy,” she continued, “has been the largest factor in the increasing the costs of Pell Grants.” If Congress cuts Pell grants, pushing more of the most indebted, lowest-income students into even more loan debt, this will only benefit those who will be lending to them.

Supporters of Occupy Wall Street are putting a very personal face on the student debt crisis at the wearethe99percent Tumblr, which has become one of the most effective informal media outlets in drumming up support for the occupations. The triple threat of rising tuition, student loan debt and unemployment fuels focused anger: 

    “Since being laid off, I’ve lost my dignity but I’ve found $75,000 in student debt. No healthcare, no income, and no more patience for political dithering. I have an MBA and I am the 99%.”  

    “I am 31, married with 2 daughters. I am unemployed. I have 3 college degrees, including 1 graduate degree ($50,000+ in debt). I cannot find work in a 3 state area. And am tried of deciding between food for my kids and electricity. I am the 99%.” 

The pressure is on Occupy Wall Street to issue formal demands. But these real-life stories of economic inequality from people who likely don’t have the resources to join an occupation speak directly to why so many have taken to the streets over the last three weeks.  

As Robert Appelbaum wrote this week at the Guardian in a demand for student loan forgiveness: 

    “By turning education into a commodity where the students must personally bear the full costs of an educational system that, in fact, benefits all of society, not just the students themselves, we've shifted the ever-increasing burden of skyrocketing tuition costs down the socio-economic ladder onto those who can least afford to shoulder them. Couple that with a job market that's been utterly decimated by the irresponsibility and greed of those at the very top, the underlying reasons for the Occupy Wall Street protests start to come into focus.” 

Wednesday’s walk-outs and sustained student support for the protests point to this broader education justice tactic at work in Occupy Wall Street. Students are demanding accountability, not just from colleges and universities, but also from the banks and lenders that are making a business out of education.

Melissa Gira Grant has written for Slate, the Guardian (UK), the New York Observer and Jezebel, among others. Follow her on Twitter: @melissagira.