With Bloomberg Running, A Student Debt Strike Is Even More Urgent

Bloomberg’s plan doesn’t go far enough to address the student debt crisis

Ann Larson

Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg speaks at a Nashville rally on February 12, 2020. (Brett Carlsen / Stringer)

Bil­lion­aire Michael Bloomberg launched his cam­paign for pres­i­dent by spend­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars on adver­tise­ments to boost his poll num­bers. Yes­ter­day, he released a pol­i­cy pro­pos­al to address the cost of high­er education. 

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, Bloomberg would not can­cel all stu­dent debt or make all pub­lic col­leges free for every­one (as Bernie Sanders pro­pos­es). An ear­li­er, leaked ver­sion of Bloomberg’s edu­ca­tion plan pub­lished by The Inter­cept on Feb­ru­ary 17 sug­gest­ed that all under­grad­u­ate bor­row­ers would be auto­mat­i­cal­ly enrolled in an income-dri­ven repay­ment plan (IDR) that in which stu­dent loan pay­ments would be with­held from pay­checks. The leaked plan says bor­row­ers could opt out,” but it is unclear what options would remain. The ver­sion of the plan lat­er pub­lished on Bloomberg’s web­site omits this lan­guage about the pay­check with­hold­ing sys­tem entirely.

He sug­gests mak­ing two-year pub­lic col­leges free for all and mak­ing both two-year and four-year col­lege tuition-free and debt-free for the low­est-income stu­dents — and although some are tout­ing this as a pro­gres­sive” plan, this is sim­ply not good enough. Today, there are 45 mil­lion peo­ple are car­ry­ing $1.6 tril­lion in loans. What’s worse, stu­dent debt has a dis­pro­por­tion­ate impact on peo­ple of col­or and women, pre­cise­ly those groups for whom edu­ca­tion was sup­posed to pro­vide a path to a bet­ter life. It turns out that a col­lege degree alone can’t address racial, gen­der or eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly when edu­ca­tion has been turned into a con­sumer prod­uct instead of what it ought to be: a pub­lic good.

While every­one knows that ser­vicers like Navient make a bun­dle col­lect­ing on stu­dent loans, what a lot of peo­ple don’t real­ize is that mil­lions of us are already not mak­ing pay­ments. In 2015 I helped orga­nize the first stu­dent debt strike in U.S. his­to­ry as part of the Debt Col­lec­tive, an orga­ni­za­tion for debtors that I co-found­ed. That strike helped win more than $1 bil­lion in debt relief for peo­ple who had attend­ed preda­to­ry for-prof­it col­leges. The Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion report­ed that, as of March 2019, 20% of stu­dent debts were in default, mean­ing bor­row­ers have not made a pay­ment in 270 days. This trend shows no sign of slow­ing down. Accord­ing to the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, about a mil­lion new bor­row­ers go into default every year. As the num­ber of peo­ple who are forced to debt finance their col­lege degrees has risen, so has the num­ber of those who can’t — or won’t — pay.

But defaults are only part of the sto­ry. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has report­ed that only 36% of peo­ple with stu­dent debt are mak­ing progress repay­ing their loans. Mil­lions are not even mak­ing pay­ments because we are enrolled in defer­ral, for­bear­ance or in one of the income dri­ven repay­ment” plans that allow many low-income peo­ple to pay nothing. 

It is time that we call this mas­sive non-repay­ment what it is: a debt strike. Indeed, that is exact­ly what the Debt Col­lec­tive aims to do. Debtors who are not mak­ing pay­ments, whether they are in default, for­bear­ance or $0 income-based repay­ment, can join the cam­paign as bona-fide debt strik­ers. By join­ing togeth­er with oth­ers in their sit­u­a­tion, stu­dent debtors can send a mes­sage to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, lenders, col­lec­tors and espe­cial­ly to those run­ning for pres­i­dent that they have had enough.

Why is now the time for a nation­al stu­dent debt strike? First, col­lec­tive action by debtors brings peo­ple togeth­er. With an elec­tion in full swing and many peo­ple divid­ed over the right way for­ward, one thing is cer­tain: More of us need to get involved. The fact that mil­lions are strug­gling with edu­ca­tion­al debt can unite us across our dif­fer­ences and give us a rea­son to get involved in the polit­i­cal process. I saw this type of shared strug­gle first­hand five years ago dur­ing the strike that I helped to launch with for­mer for-prof­it col­lege stu­dents. Peo­ple from all walks of life includ­ing Democ­rats, Repub­li­cans and those who don’t iden­ti­fy with either par­ty came togeth­er to demand jus­tice from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment — and they won! Now is the time for stu­dent debtors to rise up with one voice.

What do stu­dent debtors want? The Debt Col­lec­tive has long been demand­ing a stu­dent debt jubilee and free pub­lic col­lege. A decade ago, such pro­pos­als were con­sid­ered total­ly out­side the main­stream. Today, thanks in part to the Debt Collective’s work, top pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates have signed on to both poli­cies. First, Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren (D‑Mass.) pro­posed can­celling a por­tion of stu­dent debt. Then, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.), along with Reps. Prami­la Jaya­pal (D‑Wash.) and Ilhan Omar (D‑Mich.), intro­duced bills that would can­cel all stu­dent debt, both fed­er­al as well as pri­vate loans, and make pub­lic col­lege free. 

Such pro­pos­als rep­re­sent a stun­ning shift in pub­lic pol­i­cy, and they were made pos­si­ble by ordi­nary peo­ple ris­ing up and refus­ing to pay. In fact, the Debt Col­lec­tive has already iden­ti­fied the mech­a­nism by which fed­er­al stu­dent loans can be can­celled. One of our founders co-wrote a legal brief on the High­er Edu­ca­tion Act of 1965, which gives the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion the author­i­ty to decide not to col­lect fed­er­al stu­dent debt, with­out going through Congress. 

We are clos­er than ever to lib­er­at­ing tens of mil­lions from the bur­den of stu­dent loans and to assur­ing that future gen­er­a­tions have a right to a qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion with­out going into debt. 

The Debt Col­lec­tive has helped to nor­mal­ize the idea that stu­dent debt can be can­celled. We also showed that it can be done. Indeed, for thou­sands of for­mer for-prof­it col­lege stu­dents who have been freed from their debt, join­ing a debt strike had a pro­found­ly pos­i­tive impact on their lives. 

I attend­ed a pub­lic uni­ver­si­ty. But I have much in com­mon with for­mer for-prof­it col­lege stu­dents who believe edu­ca­tion is a right and a pub­lic good. Regard­less of where we went to school — whether it was a pri­vate col­lege, a pub­lic uni­ver­si­ty, or a preda­to­ry for-prof­it — the fight for debt can­cel­la­tion, free edu­ca­tion, as well as for pub­lic goods more broad­ly, must include all of us. That’s why, this time, in addi­tion to help­ing to orga­nize the strike, I’ve joined it. I believe it’s time to fol­low the exam­ple of those who already refused to pay and won. More and more peo­ple are rec­og­niz­ing the pow­er of col­lec­tive action by debtors. This is pre­cise­ly the kind of col­lec­tive action that Bloomberg’s high­er edu­ca­tion plan intends to stop in its tracks. And that is why he must — and will — be stopped. 

An ear­li­er ver­sion of this arti­cle incor­rect­ly implied that Bloomberg’s offi­cial­ly released edu­ca­tion plan had lan­guage about gar­nish­ing bor­row­ers’ wages for stu­dent loan pay­ments. It has been updat­ed to explain that an ear­li­er, leaked ver­sion of his edu­ca­tion plan, pub­lished by The Inter­cept, does have lan­guage say­ing all under­grad­u­ate bor­row­ers would be auto­mat­i­cal­ly enrolled in an income-dri­ven repay­ment plan that in which stu­dent loan pay­ments would be with­held from pay­checks. The arti­cle has also been updat­ed to reflect, and to clar­i­fy, that Bloomberg pro­pos­es debt-free col­lege for some, but not all.​ In These Times regrets these errors. 

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