Angela Gelso graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2008. The school is a public one, and Ms. Gelso, who is from Georgia, took a year off between high school and college to live in Massachusetts and become eligible for reduced in-state tuition. She attended without financial assistance from her family but says she was too young to declare herself financially independent and secure federal loans. As such, her total amount of loans upon graduation—private ones—came to $60,000, owed to Citibank. Now living in Brooklyn, Ms. Gelso works at Trader Joe’s and does freelance artwork painting murals at retail stores. She said she “barely” makes her payments. “I have terrible credit but I think I’ve just accepted that,” she said.
Last Sunday, Ms. Gelso was in Washington Square Park along with a couple hundred others for a speech by the political activist Angela Davis. Ms. Gelso said that she had attended Occupy events “several times,” and when asked whether her student debt burden contributed to her participation in the movement, she answered in the affirmative. “It’s a huge reason that I’ve been coming,” she said. “Because of my own story I’ve seen how it’s hard for people to get secondary education and how vital it is in our society.”
It is accepted wisdom that Occupy Wall Street has too many diverse concerns to be tied to a single catalyst for the movement. The New York Times has suggested that the sole common thread among the occupiers is “anger.” But an alternative common thread might be the ubiquity of student debt. The early days of the occupation in Zuccotti Park have coincided with the news, as reported in USA Today, that outstanding student loans will reach a combined total of $1 trillion some time this year. According to the College Board, average tuition for four-year public colleges was up 8.3 percent over last year and average tuition for public four-year colleges rose almost 130 percent from 1988 to 2008. Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the website FinAid.org, reports that the average debt load for a student graduating with a bachelor’s degree this year was $27,200, and $34,400 when the figure includes family loans. Moreover, the size of the country’s collective student debt outstripped the amount of its collective credit card debt in June of last year.
It took minimal questioning at a recent rally at Washington Square Park on a Sunday afternoon to find Ms. Gelso and several other college graduates or current students with thousands of dollars in student loans attached to their names. At Zuccotti Park the situation was similar. There was Alan Collinge, a longtime activist on the subject who has appeared on 60 Minutes and who has been camped out for three weeks with a sign advocating that bankruptcy protection be extended to holders of student loans. Other protesters did not name student loans as their primary concern, but they were willing to discuss their sense that to enter the workforce on a sure footing a tithe must be paid to the twin terrors of Citibank and Sallie Mae.
“There may be some overstatement in the term indentured servitude,” said Bruce Robbins, an English professor at Columbia University in a phone interview. “But for many jobs, you can’t get them unless you have a B.A. and for many people you can’t get a B.A. without going into debt.”
Students at Zuccotti Park affirmed this viewpoint. “I went to a graduate program at Hunter so I have loans from that,” said Daniel Scott, who said his balance for his master’s in integrated media arts is a relatively small $16,000. Mr. Scott works now building software for social movements and said that student debt was “kind of the backdrop” for many people on Occupy Wall Street. “I understood what I was getting into but it’s an unfortunate thing that people have to make that choice. It’s like if you’re going to be educated and you aren’t already financially set, then you’re going to be in debt. It’s just a bad choice that a lot of people have to make.”
On Nov. 12, a rally has been advertised as Generation Debt: A Day of Action and Awareness. The ubiquity of signs addressing the problem at rallies and marches and blogs like Occupy Student Debt, where indebted graduates share their insurmountable loan balances, are further indication that many of those involved in the movement see their primary relationship to Wall Street defined by the payments they must make each month.
Alexis Necole, a 23-year-old student at the New School who attended Sunday’s rally and is funding her education in part through student loans, said that for her just discussing the impact of loans on students’ lives is important. “It’s getting people to talk,” she said of Occupy Wall Street. “It’s a conscious exercise to get people to talk.”
As for responses, in the working groups and meetings at Occupy Wall Street hypothetical actions have ranged from advocating for debt forgiveness or proposing a mass boycott on payments to less drastic options like advocating for more consumer protection rights or simply more federal funding for public higher education. True to the spirit of the movement, no single demand has yet emerged.
“The general tenor is that student loans are one of the most lucrative and profitable operations of the finance industry, and education of all things should not be a vehicle for generating profit and debt,” said Andrew Ross, a professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at N.Y.U. who has participated in forums about higher education at Occupy Wall Street. “My own salary is debt-financed,” he added. “I don’t feel very good about that.” He emphasized that these discussions and opinions were to be seen as separate from the movement itself. Mr. Ross, along with other people interviewed, expressed particular concerns with the fees charged to students who cannot repay their debts, which are almost impossible to discharge in bankruptcy.
“The collection fees are very, very high and it’s actually more profitable for banks if students default,” he continued. “Why education should be a vehicle for this is beyond all credibility in a democracy.”
On the university side, the increased focus on the problem of student loans spurred by Occupy Wall Street has put some of New York City’s most venerated institutions of higher education in a rather uncomfortable spotlight. David Van Zandt, the president of the New School, was an early responder to the Occupy movement, sending a message to students, faculty and staff that “our academic values dictate that legal, peaceful demonstration furthers key educational goals” and organizing a university-wide “teach-in.”
Brian Connolly, a spokesman for Columbia, responded to our query by saying “Columbia announced a large expansion of financial aid in 2008 and discontinued student loans.” He did not respond to our second query about graduate loans, which were not discontinued under the expansion of financial aid.
Another aspect of student loans is that, contrary to what happens in taking out a mortgage, admissions officers rarely advise that students do not have the financial capacity to take them on. In an email, John Beckman, a spokesman at N.Y.U,, responded to our query about whether the university ever advises applicants not to attend it because of the debt burden: “Our financial aid advisers are not financial planners, but they provide families with information to help them understand the financial implications of attendance,” he wrote. “Still, this conversation has to be undertaken respectfully and thoughtfully: one cannot simply put up a barrier to students and their families because they have to borrow to attend school—borrowing has been part of going to college or graduate school for a long time.”
The question that Occupy Wall Street is raising, however, is, will that change?
“Push will come to shove when students stop going to college,” said Mark Taylor, a professor of religion at Columbia and author of a controversial 2009 New York Times opinion article called “End the University as We Know It.” He has advocated for controversial moves such as cutting athletic programs.
“Colleges are going to have to come clean on what it is that they’re selling,” he said. “They’re not simply selling education. They’re marketing the brand whose value may be declining.”
One person who has appeared to be somewhat affected by the dominance of the debate over student loans at Occupy Wall Street, as well as a petition in circulation advocating for student loan forgiveness, is President Obama. Last week, as part of a series of executive orders, he announced an expansion of the Income Based Repayment plan that will allow students the ability to cap their loan payments at 10 percent of their income starting next year. The plan will forgive the balance of federal student loans after 20 years of payments, but it applies only to students who took at least one of their loans out in 2012 or later. The program currently in place assists borrowers whose debt burden exceeds their income, but students with private loans have no such assistance.
“What’s been going on at Occupy Wall Street and with the petition from the forgive-student-loan-debt people did catch the White House’s attention,” said Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of the websites FinAid and Fastweb. Mr. Kantrowitz painted a bleak picture of the future, however, saying he was pessimistic Congress would ever make higher education a priority, despite evidence he says shows federal income tax payments from increased earnings more than repay the cost of giving students grants.
“What we’ve got here is, in a way, all about greed,” he lamented. “One group wants to see federal spending cut so they can preserve their tax cuts. Another group wants all their student loan debt forgiven. Corporations have their own agenda. So you have corporate greed, you have personal greed and nothing in all this is being driven by policy thinking.”
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