Everyone seems to agree: Student debt sucks. But even after we spoke to an expert about what would happen if we just stopped paying our loans, nobody seems to know what we should actually do. One possibility, promoted by the Debt Collective and embodied in the Corinthian debt strike, is that we all just stop paying our student loans together. As marked progress is made by the 100 Corinthian College students refusing to pay back their loans in the face of a corrupt, for-profit university, other graduates are beginning to wonder if a big, collective “Screw you” is the right answer to those monthly emails reminding us of outstanding payments. If a whole generation has fucked credit scores, won’t landlords have to rent to us anyway? If everyone under the age of 30 just accepts their allotted five figures of debt as a permanent reality, won’t the government have to listen? Won’t some compassionate old guys on Capitol Hill have to interveneand stop the madness?
Maybe, but in all likelihood, we’ll never know. The prospect of collectively defaulting on our student debt is sexy, but elusive. People act out of self-interest, and while another million students will default on their debt this year, it’s unlikely they’ll do so as a collective union. Instead, one in three young debtors will throw in the towel alone. To learn what might happen if they organized instead, I spoke with Professor Andrew Ross of New York University. Ross is a professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and a key player in the debt resistance movement. One of the founders of Occupy Student Debt and Strike Debt, Ross is a member of the Debt Collective and an advocate for debtors’ rights and debtors’ unions. He’s also the author of Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal. I spoke with Ross about the cold hard reality of sticking it to the man, the end goal of the debt strike, and what would happen if we collectively kamikazeed our credit scores.
VICE: So, let’s cut to the chase. What would happen if we took collective action and all stopped paying our student loans?
Professor Andrew Ross: If you look at the rates of student debt default, one in three student debtors are in default. So it’s already happening on a mass basis. It’s just happening individually, so you don’t necessarily see any political impact. But millions of students are in this predicament, and they simply can’t pay back their debts, even if they wanted to. It’s not a question of meeting your responsibilities: These people simply cannot pay back their debts and will never be able to. So we are in that kind of situation as a society where we have turned higher education into the cruelest of debt traps. It should be a social good. It should be a social right, in my opinion. And it’s turned into the cruelest of debt traps from which only students from well-heeled families can escape.
Now, in the Occupy Student Debt campaign we had set a goal of finding 1 million students who would agree to collectively default, back in 2011. We didn’t get anywhere near those numbers for all sorts of reasons, but 1 million student debtors did actually default that year. They just did so individually; if they’d collectively defaulted as we had planned, then we would be having a different conversation. We’d have had a political impact. And that’s why we decided after several years to start much smaller. We started the Debt Collective with a much smaller group, but we’ve already had quite an impact with that small group, these 100 or so students who went on debt strike. Although what the Department of Education announced this week was highly problematic, and we have a lot of criticisms of it, that wouldn’t have happened without the pressure from this debt strike. It’s only the beginning, and it shows that collective action produces results.
We have turned higher education into the cruelest of debt traps. It should be a social good. It should be a social right.
What kind of political result do you think is actually feasible, if millions of students stop paying their loans?
A strike of any kind is a tactic. It’s not a solution. It’s a tactic towards a goal, and the goal here ultimately is for the US to join the long list of industrialized countries around the world that make it their business to offer a free public higher education system. None of these other countries are as affluent as the US; there’s no question that this country could afford to do so. In fact, we produced an estimate not that long ago about how cheap it would be for the federal government to cover tuition at all two and four-year colleges. There are several estimates in circulation, and a few years ago that kind of proposal was dismissed out of hand. But now we’re beginning to see it pop up on Capitol Hill in various forms. It’s a proposal that’s part of Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president. It’s a proposal that pushed President Obama in the direction of making community colleges free, at least for two years. It’s becoming a little more respectable to talk about [solutions for student debt], on Capitol Hill and in the public sphere in general. None of that would have happened without a student debt resistance.
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Is the goal here mass debt forgiveness or free public education? Is it more a selfless act for current debtors, if the primary concern is future generations and it’s going to seriously fuck up their own financial situation to default?
I think both. At this point, to go on debt strike, you have to be pretty into it. The Corinthian students have a very strong legal—and even stronger moral—case to have their debts discharged. There’s a lot of personal self-interest driving that. And there’s obviously strength in numbers, which is the rationale for any collective action like this. You’re less at risk. You’re less exposed, if you have a lot of company. We filed more than 1000 defense of repayment letters on behalf of Corinthian students so far. We would do more if we had more resources. There’s a certain amount of personal self-interest but when you join a campaign like this, there’s always a higher goal.
What sort of concrete political change do you think these strikes can bring, if done en masse?
We have a long term view of this. Building a debtors’ movement takes a while, and we learned from our experience a few year ago you have to go a little more slowly. Occupy Student Debt, that campaign was in the heyday of Occupy. We thought anything was possible. Things could happen very quickly and virally. Organizing is very labor intensive and you really have to build it stone by stone. The risks are there for a reason: They bolster the credit of the creditors.
The relationship [between debtor and creditor] is incredibly imbalanced in favor of the creditor. There are laws that make that the case. Those laws can easily be overturned in all sorts of ways, by making personal bankruptcy available, for example. By insisting that the Department of Education live up to its more noble principles of providing education, rather than regarding higher education as a vehicle for profit. The moral principles upon which the campaign rests are sound. They’re very high-minded ones. They’re ones that you build a movement on. A long-term debtors’ union has to be one that’s driven by those principles. If you think of the early days of the Labor Movement, there were incredible risks involved for the workers who went on strike. This isn’t dissimilar. The laws are often stacked against any set of workers who try to organize. That doesn’t mean [the laws] can’t be changed. That doesn’t mean that we can’t win through collective organizing.
The relationship between debtor and creditor is incredibly imbalanced in favor of the creditor. There are laws that make that the case. Those laws can be overturned.
The Corinthian case is pretty clear cut, but what about cases like mine and other students like me? I received a full scholarship to a great public university, but chose to attend a private university. I got a great education, but now I have $35k in loans to pay off. And you work at a very expensive private university yourself.
We don’t place blame on debtors, ever. If you’re in a debtors’ movement, you don’t blame debtors. The blame is systemic. We have a system of higher education in this country that privileges private goods at the expense of public goods. Although you went to a private university and racked up loans, they were probably federal loans. There isn’t a firm distinction between the private sector and the public sector. If you look at the for-profit sector, it couldn’t exist without the public purse. NYU couldn’t exist without the federal loan provision, at this point. I reject the blaming and I reject the clear cut distinction between public and private. If public universities and colleges were tuition-free, we would see a lot of changes in private universities.
So is mass debt forgiveness off the table?
I don’t think anything is off the table. But the important thing is how you organize. The Debt Collective wants to create a network of proto-debtors’ unions. And people will join those unions depending on what kind of debt they have, who their creditor is, where they went to college. If people want to engage in collective action around debt strikes, it makes most sense for them to have people who share the same circumstances as their peers. That means the same creditor, maybe the same college, maybe the same region. We started out with Corinthian because they met all the requirements for a group of debtors who could see it was in their interest to act collectively.
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