Line in the Sand on Student Debt: New Coalition Demands Higher Education Not Debt

Photo Credit: Student Debt Crisis, Facebook

A new multi-year campaign was launched on Thursday promising to serve as a united front against the student debt crisis and the defunding of public higher education. The “Higher Ed Not Debt” campaign describes its purpose as:

a multi-year year campaign of dozens of organizations dedicated to tackling the crippling and ever-growing issue of student loan debt in America. With over $1.2 Trillion in outstanding educational debt, affecting more than 40 million Americans, we have partnered around a simple message and a clear objective: Higher Ed, Not Debt!

Now, more than ever, a college degree is the ticket required for entry into the middle class. Unfortunately, the skyrocketing cost of this ticket is risking our nation’s future as a middle‐class nation. The long‐term vision of this campaign is to ensure that quality higher education is affordable and accessible to all, without the burden of financial hardship.

The list of supporters reads like a who’s who of progressive organizations – labor unions, progressive think tanks, non-profits, and student organizations – setting Higher Ed Not Debt apart from the empty promises of mainstream politicians or loosely affiliated organizations working independently of one another. The campaign roll-out featured a short film by Brave New Films posted a few days ahead of the official launch, a website featuring reports and tools for getting involved, and keynote speaker Elizabeth Warren, the rock-star progressive Senator out of Massachusetts.

Warren has chosen to place student loan debt at the top of her legislative priorities since taking office. Nine months ago, Warren was advocating for legislation to allow students to take out college loans with the same interest rate that the Big Banks get – less than 1%. Last November, Warren spoke before the Education Writers Association about the student debt crisis as part of a campaign to keep student loan debt in the spotlight. Her keynote address at the Higher Ed Not Debt campaign launch kept the heat on. Warren broke the problem down like this:

If you’re not rich in America, college costs more. It costs more because you have to borrow the money and pay and pay and pay. And not just pay the cost of the education, not just pay over time the cost to borrow, but pay to produce a profit for the United States government.

Let’s keep in mind what we’re talking about here. These are not young people who went to the mall in order to say, “gee, what else can I buy,” and ran up debt and now want some help. These are young people who did everything we asked them to do. They worked hard, they played by the rules, they worked hard in school, they tried to get an education. And now the consequence is, as a matter of Federal policy, we penalize those young people by saying you’re going to pay more for your education than people who have the blessing of being born to a family that can pay for it up front.

That is not how we create opportunity in this country. That is not how we narrow the income gap in this country. That is not how we produce a strong future for this country.

(watch the entire launch event here)

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, followed Warren with a similar fight back message. Weingarten began with a story of students and teachers attending a Sallie Mae shareholders meeting in Delaware – Sallie Mae is the largest student loan company in the U.S. – to make their case about the student loan debt crisis:

When I thought about today…I thought about a sweltering day last summer when I joined hundreds of students, educators, and parents outside of a Sallie Mae shareholders’ meeting in Delaware.

We were asking Sallie Mae, during their shareholders’ meeting, for a conversation about the impact of what they were doing. Particularly the impact of what they were doing as it affected students in terms of the crippling student debt. And what we were met with was not open arms.

What we were met with was dozens of police officers, some on horseback, others in riot gear. And if we didn’t keep to our lane at all times and do exactly what they said, we were threatened many times with arrest.

Think about the optics of that situation. The students of America going to the financier and saying, “STOP! You’re actually hurting our futures.” And met instead with [police] on horseback threatening arrest.

In some ways, that is what this campaign is about and why it is needed. Because if we don’t actually help reclaim the promise of higher education, how do our kids have a future in this country.

The Higher Ed Not Debt campaign is organized around four main goals:

  • Providing support to borrowers currently paying off the existing $1.2 trillion of debt;
  • Addressing the causes of declining affordability and quality, including changes to state funding and financial aid policies;
  • Educating the public about Wall Street’s complicity in the creation of the $1.2 Trillion student debt crisis; and
  • Civic engagement across all geographic, demographic and political lines.

There is no doubt that these goals will have traction among student and faculty activists who have been fighting this fight for years. The test of Higher Ed Not Debt will be whether it is willing to invest in the kind of on-the-ground organizing and media infrastructure that will be necessary for it to be effective.

Photo credits: Higher Ed Not Debt

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