Students: the New Debtor Class

From the September 2012 PNL #817

Jackie Hayes

I am a 30-year-old doctoral student at the University at Albany, SUNY. I don’t have a car or own a house or have kids. I have $72,000 of student debt, $6,000 of which is interest, all from attending public universities in New York. This summer, the government eliminated subsidies on federal graduate loans. This means that interest on my graduate loans will now accrue while I am still in school. When I graduate I will have to pay between $400 and $600 a month for the next 20 to 25 years. If I don’t, the banks can garnish my wages. I cannot declare bankruptcy, and if any of my loans are owned by private companies, my family will be handed a bill when I die.

What does this mean for my day-to-day life? It means that at least once a month I experience anxiety about my ability to lead a relatively debt-free life in the future. Earlier hopes of having a house, a car, a family, or traveling are quickly checked by the reality that I may never be able to afford any of them. Similarly, when I think about the work I want to devote my life to, calculus replaces hopes and ambitions. Student loan debt has altered the way I think about myself and my place in the world. Unfortunately, my situation is not unique. Total national student debt hit $1 trillion last year, surpassing credit card debt. Today US undergraduates leave school with an average of $22,000 of debt and a looming sense of uncertainty about their future.

Statewide and National Trends in Student Debt
When I talk with others about student debt, the conversation tends to revolve around themes like fiscal responsibility or, in the case of older SUNY administrators, personal stories about struggling to pay for education before they “made it.” They usually punctuate these stories with questions like: “If I was able to work my way through college, why can’t you?” The short answer is that education costs, financial aid and the very nature of public education has transformed significantly in the last few decades. Whereas our parents had a welfare state, we have neoliberalism and the gospel of austerity (by ‘welfare state’ I don’t mean the pejorative term frequently used by conservatives to demonize social programs: I mean a state that invests in the general well-being of its citizenry).

The roots of this transformation in public higher education extend far back into US history. In New York, it started in the late 1970s when tuition was first instituted at the City University of New York (CUNY). Prior to this, CUNY had been free for most students, and tuition at public colleges was widely viewed as a way to supplement public support of higher education.

Yet, only six years after CUNY had adopted an open admissions policy, it began charging all students tuition. The initial cost was modest and was partially matched with state financial aid, like the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). But it initiated an ideological shift from public higher education being viewed and managed as a public good, to it being treated as a private commodity. Students broke down one barrier (access) while another was being erected (tuition).

Since tuition was instituted, it has increased dramatically alongside other education costs like books, fees and campus housing. In 2011, The New Yorker reported that since the late 1970s college costs have increased at three times the rate of inflation; simultaneously, states have dramatically slashed financial support leading to a decrease in full-time faculty and hallmark university services. Students and families are replacing the financial support that used to come from the state. In other words, students are not paying more for a better education; they are paying more for a lower quality education.

More recently, disinvestment in public education has intensified. Following the bank bailout in 2008, which drained public coffers to the tune of $700 billion, states across the US experienced profound budget shortfalls. At least 34 states cut funds to public colleges and universities, resulting in reductions in faculty and staff, and increases in tuition.

New York did not evade the maelstrom. In 2010, New York cut $1.4 billion in total aid to public schools across the state. SUNY’s budget was cut by $210 million—this large reduction in funding, coupled with previous cuts, meant that SUNY’s total operating budget had been reduced by over 30% in only three years. At my university, SUNY Albany, funding cuts resulted in the elimination of five academic departments: Italian, Russian, French, Theater and the Classics, as well as the elimination of staff positions campus wide. While technocrats may see such cuts through the lens of efficiency, these cuts actually represent a shift in what an education means: whereas at one time speaking another language or knowing cultural history was viewed as the mark of an educated person, today anything that cannot be quantified is carelessly thrown aside.

To fill the giant hole left by massive cuts in state support, SUNY and CUNY administrators have lobbied for tuition increases. In the summer of  2011, their efforts were successful and New York passed a bill entitled NYSUNY 2020, which included provisions to increase tuition by 30% every year for the following five years (the rate is double for international and out-of-state students). Rather than seek out creative solutions SUNY representatives simply pushed the burden down to students and their families, relying on the fact that today a degree is perceived as a requirement for most career paths. We only have to look at the last few decades to accurately predict how students who cannot afford tuition hikes will get by. They will take out more student loans. The contradiction couldn’t be more glaring. The same exact banks that created the conditions for a crisis in public education funding will reap the benefits of the crisis.

Students Rise Up
The 2008 economic crisis could have been solved any number of ways. Instead of slashing funding for public education, taxes could have been raised on the wealthiest Americans; defense spending could have been cut; we could have redirected money from mass incarceration or mass deportations to our education system. In other words, the economic crisis only illuminated another crisis, one of national priorities. This crisis of priorities has sparked student resistance across the country and around the world. In May, students in Quebec and their allies engaged in the “largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history” when protesters took to the streets, ignoring the recently passed Bill 78 (a bill attempting to stifle protest). In June 2011, about 100 universities were occupied by students in Chile with subsequent demonstrations turning out hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. Mexico, Spain and Puerto Rico have also seen new student leadership and mass mobilizations. Students are rising up.

This summer the Student Power Convergence in Columbus, Ohio brought students from across the US together for five days to strategize about fighting back. In New York, the group New York Students Rising (NYSR) has organized statewide student walk-outs, press conferences, teach-ins and mass actions to mobilize against massive cuts to public education, student debt and tuition hikes. On March 5, 2012 over 1,000 students occupied the Capitol building in Albany and 33 students took part in an act of civil disobedience that resulted in arrest. NYSR held two summer retreats to continue planning for the upcoming school year. These students comprise the most diverse and dynamic group I have ever worked with in my time as a student activist. Although my debt seems insurmountable, organizing alongside others helps to lighten the burden and provides considerable hope for a better, debt-free future.

For more information on New York Students Rising and the Student Power Convergence, check out: nystudentsrising.org and www.studentpower2012.org.

Jackie Hayes is a doctoral student in the Latin American, Caribbean and US Latino Studies Department at SUNY Albany and a member of New York Students Rising.

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