Reprinted from Campaign For America's Future
The Thursday Netroots Nation panel, "Student Debt Crisis: How We Can Help Stop the Next Economic Bubble from Bursting," discussed ways to deal with the more than $1.2 trillion in student loan debt carried by 43 million Americans -- and examined the implications for elections.
On the panel: Robert Cruickshank, Senior Campaign Manager at Democracy for America; Natalia Abrams, co-founder of Student Debt Crisis; Melissa Byrne (@mcbyrne), founder of Project Springboard; Kayla Wingbermuehle of Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC); and Angela Peoples, President of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club.
A Generational Change
Colleges used to have relatively low tuition, and a part-time job once paid enough to get by while in school. But now college tuition can be very high, while wages continue to decline after inflation. The result of these changes, combined with deregulation of loans and Wall Street-sponsored bankruptcy "reform" is that people now carry tremendous debt loads, just from going to college.
This is a generational change with political consequences as older people don't get the degree to which today's student debt is crushing. As one panelist put it, "This is not your parents' student loan debt ... We still have legislators saying 'get a part-time job and pay off your education like we did.'"
While student debt can be as large as many mortgages, the lenders do not have to meet the same standards as other lenders. So a lot of people have been lured into a crushing debt situation by predatory lenders to pay for predatory "schools."
The national total surpasses the amount of credit card debt, so it has huge implications for the economy. People carrying this debt are putting off starting families, buying houses and otherwise being able to participate in having an economic future.
Opportunity For Fundamental Change
This many people affected to this degree by a rigged system means that something has to give. As Robert Cruickshank said, opening the discussion, this represents an "opportunity to really push for big fundamental changes, building a movement to make those things happen."
Kayla Wingbermuehle of PCCC said they started looking at the student debt issue after the 2014 election. "Nobody woke up on election day thinking if I don't go vote I won't be able to send my kids to college." So there was no urgency to get people to the polls.
PCCC crowd-sourced big ideas and making college debt-free rose to the top. So they conducted some polls to see what people thought about this issue. By 78 percent to 11 percent, people want measures to reduce the debt burden. Here's the big one: This was the No. 1 issue that "drop-off voters" -- people who didn't bother to vote in 2014 -- said would have motivated them to go to the polls.
This is a huge opportunity to activate millions of people who have not been voting, and candidates are aware of this message: every student in America should have opportunity to go to college and end up debt free. That is good for the people and good for the country.
Right now PCCC and others (including the Campaign for America's Future, through its "I Am A Student Debt Voter" (website) are trying to make debt-free college central to the 2016 debate. They encourage candidates to not just support but actively campaign on debt-free college.
PCCC is partnering with Demos and AFT to create a checklist, a criteria for candidates who campaign on this issue to be called progressive. The checklist contains these six principles:
-- Do all undergraduates have access to college?
-- Does it apply to all colleges and universities?
-- Does it cover all college costs, not just some?
-- Do students have access to equal opportunities at that institution?
-- Does it mean families are not experiencing economic hardship?
-- Are all students eligible?
Free Tuition vs. Debt-Free