For many Americans, the idea of large-scale student-debt cancellation likely came to their attention for the first time this week, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, announced as part of her campaign for president a plan to wipe out millions of Americans’ student loans.
But it’s a concept Ann Larson has been thinking about for years.
Larson, the co-founder of the Debt Collective, a debtor membership organization, first started talking about the idea of broad student-loan cancellation in 2011 as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, when activists protesting economic inequality took over a park in Manhattan’s financial district for nearly two months and introduced the world to the rallying cry, ‘We are the 99%.’
‘We’ve seen this idea go from the kookiest thing from the campers in Occupy who needed a shower to a major presidential campaign.’
“I started going down there, hanging out in the park,” and brainstorming with other activists about how to win mass student-debt relief, Larson said.
That’s also where she and other activists began to coalesce around the idea that debt, and in particular student loans, aren’t necessarily the result of an individual failing. They founded an organization called Occupy Student Debt with the goal of both winning mass debt cancellation and drawing attention to the systemic challenges student-loan borrowers face.
“We’ve seen this idea go from the kookiest thing from the campers in Occupy who needed a shower to a major presidential campaign,” Larson said. “It’s just thrilling to see it grow from what it was seven or eight years ago to being mainstream now.”
Warren’s plan — to cancel $50,000 of student debt for borrowers earning $100,000 or less, up to $50,000 on a sliding scale for those earning between $100,000 and $250,000 and no debt for those earning $250,000 or more — looks very different from what Larson and other activists proposed.
The idea’s evolution from a protest rallying cry to a policy proposal from a presidential contender in some way mirrors America’s own evolving understanding of the student-debt crisis. That awareness has been fueled by a combination of forces, including economic and political change, grassroots activism, and growing evidence of student debt’s impact on borrowers, in particular those who are already economically vulnerable, and on the economy more broadly.
Here’s a look back at how we got here:
One early idea: A mass debt strike
When Larson and other members of Occupy Student Debt first pitched their plan for achieving mass debt cancellation in 2011, it was met with skepticism. They proposed that borrowers sign a pledge agreeing to stop paying their loans once 1 million other people agreed to do the same. The idea was that by participating in a mass debt strike, borrowers would pressure the government and lenders to wipe away the debt.
That approach came with risks — if lenders and the government refused to budge, borrowers could face major consequences for not paying their student debt. But at the time, it’s all they had, Larson said. “Our theory of change always was and still is the world changes from the bottom up,” she said.
Next came buying up other people’s debt
A couple of years later, Occupy Student Debt took that idea one step further. Through an organization they launched called Rolling Jubilee, the group bought up nearly $15 million in personal medical debt owed by about 2,000 people and cancelled it.
The Corinthian strike brought attention to a 1990s-era law called defense to repayment, which allows borrowers to have their federal student loans forgiven if their schools engaged in fraud.
They then applied the same tactic to a specific kind of student debt — nearly $4 million in loans that students who attended the now-closed Everest College, a subsidiary of the for-profit chain Corinthian Colleges, owed to the school.
The group knew they couldn’t buy up and cancel all borrowers’ debt, so they began focusing on ways they could pressure the government or lenders to take action, Larson said. They organized Corinthian students to participate in their own debt strike in 2014. By that time, some lawmakers and law enforcement officials were already accusing Corinthian of luring students with inflated job placement and graduation rates into taking on unsustainable debt.
The Corinthian strike brought attention to a 1990s-era law called defense to repayment, which allows borrowers to have their federal student loans forgiven if their schools engaged in fraud. Ultimately, the Obama administration developed a streamlined process for borrowers to access debt cancellation under the law, which up until then had been rarely used.
As of Dec. 31, 2018, the Department of Education has discharged the loans of nearly 48,000 borrowers under that law resulting in roughly $535 million of relief.
Broadening the idea to all borrowers
Though that debt cancellation campaign was focused on a relatively narrow group of borrowers, watching the process unfold helped open up the conversation around broader debt forgiveness, said Julie Margetta Morgan, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank.
Even though these borrowers had been defrauded by their schools, and were trying to use an existing law to help cancel their debt, they faced a number of obstacles — and that was eye-opening for many, said Margetta Morgan, who was once a senior policy advisor to Warren.
“This process of trying to leverage existing provisions started to both show the flaws of the existing system, and make people more comfortable with the argument that sometimes debt has to be just wiped away,” Morgan said.
Even before the Corinthian debt strike, there had been agreement among policymakers that student-debt cancellation was acceptable under certain circumstances. The design of some of the government’s repayment plans is a reflection of that, experts say.
Some plans allow borrowers to repay their debt as a percentage of their income and then have the balance wiped away after at least a decade of payments for public servants and at least 20 years for other borrowers. (For some borrowers with low-incomes, it’s possible to stay current under one of these plans while paying as little as $0 per month).
“There’s been a consensus for a while that we ought to forgive student debt for people who can’t pay it,” said Matthew Chingos, the vice president for education data and policy at the Urban Institute, a think tank.
Reframing student debt as a symptom of systemic failure
Warren’s proposal takes this idea several leaps further by arguing that the debt isn’t just a problem for some people in some cases, said Mark Huelsman associate director of research and policy at Demos, a left-leaning think tank. Instead, Warren framed her proposal as an antidote to a debt-financed higher education system that’s been a policy failure.
A number of factors coalesced to bring this idea to the fore, Huelsman said.
For one, since we’ve become aware of student debt as a major economic and policy challenge, the problem has only gotten worse. Outstanding student debt stood at $1.46 trillion during the fourth quarter of 2018, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, compared to $640 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008.
A handful of prominent studies also helped re-frame the issue. A 2018 study from the Levy Economics Institute at Bard College found that cancelling all outstanding student debt would actually boost the economy by between $86 billion and $108 billion per year on average for 10 years following the debt cancellation. Wiping away the debt would free up money borrowers were throwing at their student loans to spend on houses, cars and other major purchases.
Wiping away student debt would free up money borrowers were throwing at their student loans to spend on houses, cars and other major purchases.
In addition, a 2018 year paper co-authored by Margetta Morgan made the case that even student-loan borrowers who appeared to be doing “just fine” — in other words, they weren’t delinquent or in default on their debt — were actually struggling to get ahead, thanks in part to their loans. And their challenges were hurting the economy.
Other research also indicated the disproportionate impact student debt is having on borrowers of color and the power of student-debt cancellation to narrow the racial wealth gap.
The Trump effect
At the same time that student debt cancellation was gaining traction as a policy idea, the political landscape shifted dramatically.
Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president created an environment where bold ideas once considered too radical are more welcome on the left.
As the idea of free college, buoyed by the 2016 election became more popular, stakeholders began to ask whether it makes sense to do more for borrowers who were victims of the higher education financing system that those who advocate for free college are critiquing.
In addition, Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president created an environment where bold ideas once considered too radical are more welcome on the left, like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, Huelsman said.
When it comes to student debt, decisions by Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under the Trump administration to walk back protections for borrowers and students may have encouraged a re-framing of the conversation surrounding student loan fixes, he added.
“The justification for student debt as the primary way we pay for college has been in part based on the assumption that we’ll have consumer protections in place, and we’ll try to make it as painless as possible for people,” Huelsman said.
“When that system has broken down you get some reasonable questions about why we did it in the first place and whether we should do something fundamentally different,” he said.
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