This week, Elizabeth Warren, who is running for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, announced a proposal to cancel student debt for millions of people and make public college free. This is a stunning, visionary plan that would transform our educational system and dramatically improve millions of people’s lives.
But like every other progressive proposal now being touted by presidential hopefuls, from Medicare for All to the Green New Deal, the call for debt relief and free education first came from the grassroots. And if we want a real student debt jubilee to actually happen – to go from policy paper to reality – the grassroots will need to continue to push for it. Fortunately, it’s a battle that can be won.
Raising our voices is how we got this far. Ten years ago, student debt, even as it soared, was not seen as a serious issue. Writers including Tamara Draut and Anya Kamenetz were early to sound the alarm, exposing young people’s disproportionate indebtedness as a structural issue. Scholars such as Darrick Hamilton and Tressie McMillan Cottom would later go on to document the racially disparate impact of student loans, which burden women and people of color most of all. But it took the Occupy Wall Street movement to make public how profoundly the pinch of monthly payments was felt by an entire generation.
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In April 2012 a group of Occupiers organized a “1T Day” protest to mark the day student debt in America surpassed $1tn. Seven years later, that number has ballooned to more than $1.5tn. That protest represented a watershed moment, the point when student debt went from being a personal problem to a political one, the result of decades of disinvestment in public colleges and universities that turned education into a consumer product instead of a public good.
Some of the organizers of that event would go on to help launch the Debt Collective, a union for debtors that I co-founded. We kicked things off with the Rolling Jubilee fund, a public education campaign that bought and cancelled more than $30m in medical, student debt, payday loans and private probation debts. Then, in 2015, the Debt Collective launched the country’s first student debt strike.
Since the strike was announced, we have won more than $1bn (and counting) in student debt cancellation for people who attended fraudulent for-profit colleges. Our team accomplished this by building a membership base of for-profit borrowers themselves. These debtors, a multiracial group of working-class people from across the country, led a campaign to pressure the Department of Education to cancel their loans. Their victory – and the fact that our primary demand of a debt jubilee and free college is now on Warren’s platform – demonstrates the power of grassroots organizing.
The precedent-setting significance of the Debt Collective’s work is clear and cannot be overstated: Warren knows that student loans can be cancelled because they already have been on a smaller scale for for-profit college borrowers.
That said, Warren’s plan, as bold as it is, is hardly inevitable. Her proposal of canceling student debt and ensuring free college seems contingent on the passage of a millionaire’s tax that, barring a miracle, is likely to be stymied by an intransigent Congress. In order to win a jubilee, then, we will have to kick our grassroots efforts into a higher gear. Debtors must continue to fight for their rights and advocate for the best possible solutions.
We are preparing to do just that. Since 2016, along with our partners at Harvard Law School’s Project on Predatory Student Lending, we have been working out a roadmap that would allow all federal student loansto be cancelled without waiting for Congress to act.
Congress, it turns out, has already given administrative agencies the power to cancel debts. Just as the Securities and Exchange Commission can cut low-dollar deals with banks that break the law, for example, the secretary of education can settle with debtors for a fraction of what they owe or suspend the collection of student debt altogether. When it was first given the power to issue and collect student loans in 1958, the Department of Education also received the power to “compromise, waive, or release any right” to collect on them. And when the Higher Education Act of 1965 made student loan authorities permanent, it solidified their power to compromise.
Nothing in the law prevents the secretary of education from using compromise and settlement authority to address the worst effects of decades of failed higher education policy. But only a movement with that as its goal can get us there.
Student debt abolition and free college would be a win-win for the entire country
To win a jubilee, we need a movement focused on motivating candidates to commit to using the full powers available to them in office to address this emergency and stop collections on all student loans. While millionaires and billionaires should be taxed at a much higher rate, in the short term we should not let a Congress bought off by the super-rich prevent us from doing what’s right and legal – and economically beneficial.
Indeed, student debt abolition and free college would be a win-win for the entire country. Not only would debtors get relief, academic research shows it would be a significant stimulus that might “supercharge” the economy and help address the racial wealth gap. Money currently used to pay back loans with interest would be redirected to other goods and services.
But the win would be more profound than just an economic boost. Education could finally be a public good and not a commodity (or worse, a debt trap). This transformation would help inaugurate a new political vision that redefines liberty as the ability to freely access the social services that we all need to survive and thrive. The Debt Collective has been leading this fight for years – and our growing membership will continue to do so. Grassroots organizing is what got us this far, and it’s the only thing that can get us to the finish line: an end to student debt and free public college for everyone, once and for all.
Astra Taylor is a writer, organizer, and documentarian. Her books include the American Book Award winner The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age and Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. Her most recent film is What Is Democracy?