If You Want Student Loan Debt Cancellation, the Time to Act Is Here

The Debt Collective is making clear to the Biden administration that it’s time to cancel every cent of student debt.

Umme Hoque

Debt Collective via Facebook

On March 18, the Biden administration’s Department of Education announced that it will cancel $1 billion in federal student loan debt held by 72,000 borrowers who were defrauded by for-profit universities. These students received subprime educations and worthless degrees, and then were burdened with debt often in the tens of thousands of dollars — all while predatory companies and their investors made millions. 

The only reason this debt is now being cancelled is because debtors got organized. In 2015, students from for-profit, now defunct Corinthian Colleges Inc. launched the country’s first student debt strike, refusing to pay their loans because they had been scammed by their school. First, they fought the Obama administration, and then the Trump administration. As a direct result of these efforts, this latest victory means the U.S. government has been forced to abolish nearly $2 billion dollars in debt to date. 

Now, we need to continue what they started. We must fight to make sure that all $1.7 trillion of student debt is cancelled. We have a window to make history. As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said on March 12 after the massive American Rescue Plan was passed, “[I]f you care about student debt cancellation, it is go time for you. You need to mobilize, and now is the time to organize to create political pressure.” 

And we are. From March 29 through April 4, debtors and our allies will be taking part in the Debt Collective’s week of action to cancel ALL student loan debt. Events are planned in New York City, Chicago, Albuquerque, Denver, Knoxville, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and many more across the country. We believe that now is the time to get involved and take to the physical and digital streets, because we can’t sit back and wait for elected officials to act on their own. We have to push them by holding events, rallies, marches, phone banks and other actions to create pressure and grow our fight.

While corporations and the rich get bailed out when they face crises, nothing is ever simply handed to the working class. But we can win — if we organize together. Every progressive policy in this country was fought for: it took the civil rights movement to inch this country closer to racial justice; women marched and took action to win right to vote, and it’s only thanks to workers striking and taking militant action that we have an 8-hour workday and weekends. Debt cancellation is no different. Debtors must unite to have our voices heard and our demands met. 

President Biden campaigned on a promise to forgive $10,000 of student loan debt for everyone, along with more relief for select borrowers. That’s a positive step, but his plan still leaves out millions of people and doesn’t address the root of the crisis. 

It’s time to cancel all student loan debt and build a pathway to tuition-free college. Cancelling $10,000 or even $50,000 (the amount advocated by Democrats including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren) is better than nothing, but if that’s all Biden does, he will leave tens of millions of Americans drowning in debt. Fortunately, Biden can cancel all federal student loan debt right now using the authority he holds from the Higher Education Act. 

Higher education in the United States is fundamentally broken. Federal and state governments are slashing education budgets, and tuition costs are ballooning. Between 2008 and 2018, tuition exploded by 37%, and university costs grew by nearly 25% — but states spent, on average, 20% less on higher education. Meanwhile, the costs of rent and electricity continue to increase while the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour remains stagnant. 

The math is simple: there’s a gap, and it’s being filled by debt. Over the past 10 years, the amount of student loans increased by more than 100%. Some point to the government’s existing loan repayment and forgiveness programs as solutions for this overwhelming debt crisis. But, in spite of millions of applicants, only 32 people have qualified for income based cancellation. 

Let’s go back to the 72,000 defrauded students who will benefit from the disappearance of that $1 billion of debt. Sadly, countless others are still suffering: 90% of borrowers who were scammed by their schools say they were denied relief. The federal government’s current fixes simply don’t work. 

A diverse coalition of voters supported Biden in his presidential campaign because this country requires deep transformation, and because he committed to cancelling some student debt. I’m a South Asian Muslim from a working class family, and I currently hold over $70,000 in student debt. The last thing I want to see is a return to normal” that endangers our communities and the tattered thread of democracy we still possess. It’s time to address the actual problems that created the crisis we’re in right now. Doing so will help working people from all walks of life. 

Organizing around debt has taught me how widespread this problem is. People whisper it to me quietly, as if they are the only ones struggling, when student loan debt actually impacts a huge number of us: teachers, nurses, grocery store workers, artists, web developers, researchers, journalists, people who never graduated, unemployed people. And those who don’t have this debt? Many of them did before, so they know how hard they worked to pay it off and why no one else should have to — or they know someone who does who is suffering: their sister, brother, child or cousin. 

Debt shouldn’t be our shameful secret. It can be our collective power and shared struggle. When an issue affects 45 million people, it isn’t an individual error. We did what we are all told to do: go to school, try to get a degree, and then try to find a well-paying job. But the system isn’t designed to actually work for working people. 

Student loan debt is a racial justice issue. The largest burden of debt is held by Black and brown people. A deep legacy of structural racism in this country has denied these communities the chance to build intergenerational wealth, so they must take on more loans to go to school. Once in the workforce, Black and brown people tend to make less. First you start with nothing, and then you are penalized for trying to improve your life. This is probably why 40% of Black voters said they won’t vote for a candidate who opposes eliminating student loan debt.

Student loan debt is also an intergenerational issue, because now six million people between the ages of 50-64 and 870,000 people over the age of 65 still hold student loan debt. For retirees, instead of relaxing after a life of hard work, they’re having their social security garnished over student debt payments they defaulted on because they were too poor to pay.

Finally, student loan debt is an economic justice issue. Rich people don’t have to borrow to go to college, but almost everyone else does. Student loan debt heavily impacts poorer states and regions, both rural and urban. For instance, residents of Tennessee, where there will be two protests next week, have over $29 billion in debt. 

No wonder full scale debt cancellation is supported by a majority of voters, across political parties. Debt cancellation is the deeply needed stimulus that our country wants and needs. It would put billions of dollars into our economy and create thousands of jobs. It’s so impactful that polling shows 1 in 5 Republican voters have said they’d consider voting for Democrats if Biden cancelled debt. 

We can be certain that the banks and loan companies are not whispering in shame about how many lives they’ve destroyed. Instead, they’re proclaiming that their profits matter most, releasing farcical reports with dubious data about how cancelling student loan debt won’t help poor people, and lobbying their way to billions more in subsidies for themselves and their bottom lines. 

If they feel no remorse for manipulating and continuing to exploit 45 million of us, why should we feel shame for taking on debt to improve our lives and our communities? Instead, let’s organize together to cancel our current debts and ensure future generations don’t have to suffer like this. 

Next week, debtors and our allies will come together online and offline, in cities and Zoom rooms across the country. We will have marches and rallies, assemblies of debtors sharing stories, banner drops and other actions. 

Every action will look a bit different. But each of them will be powerful, because anytime people come together to change things, we are one step closer to justice and liberation.

Umme Hoque is the Organizing Director at the Debt Collective.

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