When you look at a student like myself, you don’t know that I am working multiple jobs, that I have gone without health insurance at some points, that I’ve been living at home with my parents for more than a year. You also do not know about my family’s medical debt, or about my father’s periods of unemployment, or that my mother’s job as a preschool aide isn’t enough to cover the gaps.
Even though I have mowed my former mailman’s lawn for eight summers to help afford school, even though I secured two “free” years of campus housing through my job as a resident assistant and received numerous scholarships, awards and assistance, I still graduated from a state school with $17,000 in debt. I carry this debt from my bachelor’s degree as I go into my second year of graduate school.
This debt acts like a ball and chain tied to the back of my mind. It limits my decisions. Before the Covid-19 moratorium on loan payments (which started March 2020), that $17,000 made me feel wrong about going out to eat, going to a bar or buying a video game. It pushed me to look at all of my “free time” as time I need work. Each lawn I mow is $15 an hour toward payments.
Certainly the moratorium helped; I stopped my payments after two months and use my “extra” money to pay off medical bills and for car repairs. I have been saving toward moving out of my parents’ house. I am less stressed now that huge chunks of my rather small bank balance stopped disappearing. I know that extra layer of stress is likely to return in October, when the moratorium is set to end.
My debt is something society expects me to pay because my parents did not have enough money to pay for my education. But instead of seeing this debt as just something of my own that only I could fix, I’ve started to see it as something symptomatic of capitalism.
This spring, I decided to take action against my debt by joining the local chapter of a national debtors’ union, the Debt Collective, which has more than 10,000 members, including 1,500 students currently striking, and has raised money to abolish more than $1 billion of student debt. It has been a relief to talk with others who see that a public institution — a public good — should not be designed to put individuals in debt for education; that people are in debt not because they live outside their means, but because they don’t receive the means to live; that the system has been designed to limit who goes to college, limit dissent and promote free market ideals.
I firmly believe my debt, along with all student debt, should be canceled. Not just forgiven, but canceled.
I never expected President Joe Biden or the Democratic Congress to do this on their own. Biden has the authority to deal with federal student debt but refuses to act. The Democrats in Congress will do as they have always done — find a means-tested way to do what they think will appease enough people. It was only due to the power of student loan activists and mounting public pressure that the moratorium was put into place. Those in power respond to one thing: power. That is why I am joining the Debt Collective in September in Washington, D.C., to demand Biden cancel all student debt.
I feel lucky my debt isn’t more; the average debt from a bachelor’s degree for the class of 2019 was $28,950. The average comprehensive cost to attend a four-year public institution — in-state — for the 2020- 2021 school year was $26,280.
We must ask why it is that, in parts of the country, higher education used to be free and now costs tens of thousands of dollars. The answer is that America now treats education as a business rather than a public good. At a Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Board of Governors meeting in July, I heard one trustee say, “I know there are some who do not believe an educational institution is a business; yes, it is. We produce goods and services, a product that people pay for.”
This business mentality is especially destructive to those in poverty and people of color, who start out with various disadvantages because of the racial wealth and income gap. In my home state of Pennsylvania, public university costs, on average, 32% of the median white income and 54% of the median Black income, as of 2017. Nationwide, Black women disproportionately owe more in student loans than any other group, at over $40,000 on average.
I have seen so many fellow students saddled with debt simply because they wanted to learn and needed a place to live. This debt is something that can only be solved collectively, because it affects more than any one individual. It affects my parents because I need to live with them; it affects others when I drive with a broken taillight because I’m worried about spending money; it affects society in general, tricking us into thinking individual competition against each other (to make more money to pay off our debt and “get ahead”) is the only solution.
Debt is harmful not only financially, but emotionally and in relationships. When we have an education system built on debt, we are indebting students to pay for faculty salaries — a reality that weighs on several faculty members I’ve talked with. Debt also complicates family relationships and support systems, as when a student needs a Parent Plus loan or leans on family to keep up with their bills to stay enrolled.
Education shouldn’t be a debt sentence. Instead of treating education as a business, we need a free and liberatory higher education system that all can attend.
Nick Marcil is a Pennsylvania Debt Collective Member and a West Chester University graduate student in higher education policy and student affairs.