Editor’s Note: Astra Taylor is a co-founder of the Debt Collective, the author of Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, and the director of What Is Democracy?, now streaming on Amazon and iTunes. Follow her on Twitter at @astradisastra. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
On Monday morning, I gathered with other members of the Debt Collective in Washington DC to endorse the College for All Act of 2019. Sponsored by Reps. Ilhan Omar, Pramila Jayapal, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the act would cancel all student debt and make all two- and four-year public colleges and universities tuition free, subsidized by a tax on Wall Street.
The Debt Collective is a membership organization fighting for economic justice that has been advocating student debt cancellation and free college for years. Our demands were initially met with skepticism and incredulity. Now, we’re standing at the Capitol, winning the battle of ideas.
A growing number of people agree that eliminating student debt will improve millions of lives, advance racial and gender justice, and be a boon for our democracy and our economy. But even though loan cancellation is now at the center of public debate, it’s far from a done deal. We need to continue to fight so that visionary proposals can become actual policy.
“Our privatized debt-for-education system has got to go,” my Debt Collective co-founder Thomas Gokey said at the press conference where Sanders, Omar and Jayapal introduced the bill. Gokey warned that the proposed legislation is unlikely to become law unless the public turns up the heat. “No big change like this ever happens without mass mobilization; without ordinary people getting organized to take direct action and engage in civil disobedience,” he said.
It may sound extreme, but civil disobedience – or what we call economic disobedience – is what got us this far, and it’s what will get us across the finish line.
In 2015 the Debt Collective launched the first student debt strike in history. Fifteen students who had been defrauded by the predatory, for-profit Corinthian Colleges chain publicly announced they would no longer pay their loans. Soon their numbers grew, and tens of thousands of people disputed their loans through an app the Debt Collective created with the help of legal experts. As a result of grassroots organizing, coupled with careful strategy, we eventually won changes to federal law and, through various channels, more than a billion dollars of debt relief – more than $500 million in relief for borrower defense applicants so far and more than $500 million won through a Harvard Law School case against ITT Tech we assisted on.
But the Corinthian debt strike was never just about the problem of predatory for-profit colleges. Instead, the Corinthian case epitomizes the problems with treating education as a commodity, an individualized product we purchase, instead of a public good that should be freely available to all.
A functioning democracy demands an educated citizenry, but the trend has been toward privatization and cutting state subsidies. A couple generations ago, college was affordable or even free. By 2017 the average four-year college borrower graduated owing more than $28,000. Every class winds up deeper in debt than the last, with racial minorities and women hardest hit.
People’s dreams of education have morphed into nightmares of compounding interest (don’t forget, there are no statutes of limitations on student loans, which also can’t be discharged in bankruptcy). Today, Americans owe approximately $1.5 trillion in debt. Fortunately, there’s a potential silver lining to this enormous sum. That $1.5 trillion is also leverage. If borrowers get organized, our debts can be a source of strength. Thus the Debt Collective’s slogan: “You Are Not A Loan.”
The Corinthian debt strike demonstrated the effectiveness of this strategy. Recently, MarketWatch reported that the Debt Collective’s strike campaign “helped open up the conversation around broader debt forgiveness” that Warren is now running on (her plan proposes a maximum of $50,000 of relief contingent on income). “This process of trying to leverage existing provisions started to both show the flaws of the existing system, and make people more comfortable with the argument that sometimes debt has to be just wiped away,” a former adviser to Warren told the outlet.
At the press conference for the College for All Act, Debt Collective members made clear that debt isn’t always bad. Rather, we need to ask which debts are moral and which are not. “When people get sick, we owe them healthcare; if they’re homeless, they deserve shelter; if somebody wants to learn, they should be able to go to school without being weighed down by unpayable loans at usurious rates,” Gokey, my colleague, said.
These are the moral debts we are currently defaulting on and that we should pay by expanding public services.
Indeed, we will be richer if we do so, at least where canceling student debt is concerned. Research from the Levy Institute shows that a full jubilee, an erasure of all student loans currently on the books, would be a significant boon to GDP, boosting the economy by approximately $100 billion a year for at least 10 years, yielding lower unemployment rates, increased spending, and more.
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In the final accounting, we are talking about something that transcends money. Free education is essential to a truly free society, which means it’s something we can’t put a price tag on. As things stand, the cost of education is too steep for nearly everyone. If we want to change that, we have to organize, and say we won’t pay.