Higher education for the 99%

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Higher education for the 99%

The radical agenda set by the debtors’ campaigns that emerged from Occupy Wall Street has slowly reshaped Democratic Party politics.

Campaigners demand that Biden write off student debt by executive order in June 2021 (Paul Morigi / Getty Images for We The 45 Million)

This article is part of a series on the tenth anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.

The current campaign to cancel student debt owes a lot to Occupy Wall Street. The movement, particularly its offshoot Occupy Student Debt, has helped turn public frustration into innovative campaigns. Activists boldly demanded government investment in higher education, which Occupy recognized as a public good that must become affordable and accessible to all within 99%.

Late payments and defaults had weighed on federal student loans since Congress first experimented with them in the late 1950s. Yet students and parents have not really spoken publicly about the weight. of these debts until the 2000s. For decades, lawmakers prioritized student loans over university funding, through the complicated federal government Guaranteed student loan program. He promised bankers to repay loans they had made to students that colleges and universities deemed worthy of admission.

Congress did not require the collection of data on loans made and debts owed until 2008, when Barack Obama incurred student debt a problem in the Democratic Party primaries. The Illinois senator said he had just paid off his loans and was committed to real change, but never advocated for debt cancellation or the transformation of higher education policies. Student debt was buried in general elections dominated by economics, the Iraq war and healthcare. He was also overlooked in the race to pass the Affordable Care Act. The White House and Congressional Democrats ended the guaranteed student loan program through the March 2010 budget reconciliation process, which most famously enacted Obamacare. President signature declaration celebrated the cancellation of secured loans, calling it a “darling deal.” “. . which basically gave billions of dollars to the banks.

This law ensured that students and parents could borrow at least part of what they needed for college directly from the federal government rather than banks, but it did not write off debts already owed. It also hasn’t bankrupted major student lenders. The Department of Education actually paid companies, like Navient, to manage the money available under the federal direct student loan program.

Eighteen months later, the Zuccotti Park encampment has drawn many Americans angry with student debt, including those who spoke out on the 2010 reforms. Alan Collinge, for example, has drawn the attention of mainstream media on the crisis with its website, Student Loan Justice, and described itself as a “kind of complaints box for the industry. “When he moved to Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011, he heard similar stories to those he had shared online for years.

Talking about debt has become a big part of Occupy as it has become more of a camp. Americans across the country turned up at debtors meetings in Oakland and Chicago to share stories of struggling to pay back what they owed for basic needs, like health care and education.

Camps have also sprung up on campus, and alliances between students, faculty, and staff have emerged to demand real change in college funding. The largest took place in California, where unions, faculty associations and 10,000 students from community college, California State University and University of California campuses participated in walkouts and sit-ins. The ReFund California coalition, a group linked to Occupy Wall Street, has called on Gov. Jerry Brown to approve a state budget and a referendum to stop fee hikes and cuts to education.

This measure, Proposition 30, was passed but received much less attention than Strike Debt, a provocative renaming of the Occupy Student Debt campaign. His innovative Rolling Jubilee asked for small donations to buy expired credits for pennies on the dollar. Strike Debt has mainly focused on buying medical and student debt to draw attention to how lenders have taken advantage of public needs. The group bought $ 14 million in overdue loans for less than $ 400,000 in November 2013, freeing thousands of people from their debts.

One of the goals of Strike Debt was to strengthen support for free public higher education. This program didn’t stand a chance in a Republican-controlled Congress, but it slowly reshaped Democratic Party politics. Obama may have admitted in 2008 that student loans were a burden on him, but he never rethought how to pay for higher education. Eight years later, in the 2016 primaries, Bernie Sanders promised free college to the thrill of many students and their parents. Hillary Clinton couldn’t ignore such widespread enthusiasm, but she waited months to introduce reforms that did not come close to what Occupy or Sanders demanded.

Many contenders for the crowded 2020 Democratic primaries have played with small changes, like debt refinancing, new repayment plans, and additional public sector forgiveness options. But a few pushed for more sweeping changes, including tuition-free community colleges, free public universities, and tuition coverage for students from low-income families. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have even advocated the cancellation of some, if not all of the debts.

Occupy’s legacy can be seen today in calls on President Biden to cancel student debt and for Congress to pass a bill, the College for All Act, which would transform the way public higher education is financed. So far, the Ministry of Education has extended the moratorium on certain federal student loans, canceled debts accrued for certain for-profit study programs, and promised a report on whether or not the president can write off debts by decree. The White House also wanted free community colleges be part of the massive infrastructure bill Democrats hope to pass before the end of the month. It’s not as ambitious as the plans that came out of Occupy Wall Street debtors’ assemblies or innovative campaigns, like Rolling Jubilee, ten years ago. But Occupy still deserves credit for the ideas and momentum that got us here, as we continue the fight for higher education for the 99%.


Elizabeth Tandy Shermer is an associate professor of history at Loyola University in Chicago, where she teaches and writes about politics, business, labor, and education in the United States. His most recent book is Students under contract, a history of the student loan industry.




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