It was merely two years ago that the Occupy Wall Street movement engaged in International Workers’ Day, or May Day, rallies in places like New York City and San Francisco. May Day provides an opportunity to reflect on the rights of workers in general but also on more day-to-day problems that affect many of us. Student debt is one of these problems.
According to the Democratic Socialists of America, 37 million Americans now owe a combined 1 trillion dollars in student loans, and over 25 percent of student-debtors are delinquent. This is not an easy realization to confront, myself. Though I now have a stable, college-teaching job, I still struggle due to an $850 per month student debt payment that is a result of student loans incurred throughout graduate school — despite having one or sometimes two side jobs, besides my graduate assistantship positions.
It’s true: Student debt is nearly everyone’s problem. I see some students at the college working long hours at low-paying jobs to barely make their monthly tuition payments. These long working hours negatively affect their ability to focus in the classroom. But the larger truth is this will probably not be an issue that will go away anytime soon, for any of us. A $60,000 debt, like I incurred, means living on a tight budget for about 10 years.
Of course, the broader issue is that education has become a business: For colleges, it is in their best interest to incentivize easy access to loans and to perpetuate the idea that success for young students is most efficiently achieved by taking out loans for education, creating high levels of debt.
Student debt affects people of all ages, including workers like my friend Jonathan, age 48. In getting through his college education at University of California, Los Angeles, he incurred nearly $35,000 in student debt. After a short grace period, he could not pay the $450 per month payment and asked for forbearance, or temporary postponement. When the forbearance period of 12 months ended, he was threatened with legal action if he wouldn’t agree on a forced repayment plan, or “garnishing,” of 15 percent of his salary.
My friend Jonathan, students who work long hours and myself are all workers, dealing individually with student debt over the long term. May Day rallies around the world make me think of the more recent student mobilizations in Colombia. In 2011, Colombian university students mobilized to defeat a proposed reform law, called Law 30, that called for private funding for public higher education. The students in Colombia formed the “Mesa Amplia Nacional Estudiantil,” or Broad National Coalition of Students, formed by delegates from all of the major public universities in the country. Three years after defeating Law 30, MANE is pressing for free education, paid for by the state, and administrative autonomy and democratization of a socially engaged academia geared toward the common good, constructed through dialogue and respect for liberty of critical thought and expression.
The U.S. could benefit from a rethinking of the link between the greater purpose of an education and respect for the rights of students and workers at all levels. A current campaign on Drop Student Debt, led by the Democratic Socialists of America, asks President Barack Obama to issue an executive order to allow all student loans to be repaid at an annual rate of 10 percent of discretionary income and be forgiven after 10 years. It also envisions an expansion of the IBR program to cover all student loans, public and private. It is a reasonable start to a dialogue that can include many voices.