By Montse Reyes
In a time when education has become a contentious topic of political debate, the subject of rising tuition costs and student loan debt has found itself at the heart of the crossfire.
Over the span of seven years, the total student debt soared from $364 billion in the first quarter of 2005 to $904 billion in the first quarter of 2012. According to a study titled “Student Loans: Overviews and Issues,” 91.5%–93% of that debt lies in the hands of the federal government. Consequently, student loan debt is now second only to mortgage debt in terms of delinquencies and default rates, the effects of which spell danger to debtors.
Throughout the country, fewer than than 60% of students successfully complete their school programs within six years, inevitably contributing to the rising delinquency rates among debtors. According to the Project on Student Debt, updated in 2010, 67% nationwide of students from four-year universities were in debt.
Though California ranks on the lower end of the debt spectrum, the average amount of debt per student was $18,113, with 48% of graduates reported to owe money on their loans. Even in our own community, the average debt per student at Fresno State was $12,670, with 60% of the graduates in debt as of 2010.
There seems to be no escape from these ominous student loans, as bankruptcy protection does not apply. In fact, student loans are the only loans in all of U.S. history that cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. Thus, defaulting on loans can have crucial consequences such as the garnishing of paychecks, disability checks and even Social Security checks or benefits.
Enter the Occupy Student Debt Campaign. Formulated in 2011, thanks to the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the campaign describes itself as “collective action to transform higher education through a campaign of student debt refusal.”
In other words, the campaign has asked people to sign a pledge refusing to pay their student loans in an effort to put pressure on lawmakers and to generate change within the higher education system. The pledge is nonbinding, more like a promise to participate in a massive debt strike once 1 million refusers have signed on.
Currently, the pledge has 5,879 signatures, of which 4,200 are debtors, 627 are faculty members and 1,052 are non-debtors. Most of the signatures are those of California and New York residents, though the campaign is even seeing international support from places such as Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia.
The petition contains four essential principles, the first being tuition-free public higher education. The campaign organizers maintain that the United States can afford free higher education and previously has done so in states such as California and New York. They contend that such an action is not out of reach, as an estimate from the Department of Education puts the cost of covering tuition at all two-year and four-year colleges at approximately $70 billion, which, according to Occupy Student Debt, can be covered by ending the Bush tax cuts.
The campaign also calls for zero-interest student loans, more transparent finances for private and for-profit universities and immediate loan forgiveness for student debtors.
Though it has been almost a year since its inception, the Occupy Student Debt Campaign shows no sign of losing steam. Its originators are still actively organizing and engaging in protests, and those sympathetic to the cause are feeling the pressures of the student loan crisis more than ever.
Montse Reyes is currently a sophomore at Merced College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.