Five years ago this week I wrote an essay called, “Forgive Student Loan Debt to Stimulate the Economy,” which I posted to a new group I had created on Facebook. To my great surprise, the essay wasn’t read just by the ten friends I had expected but by hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life, cutting across generational, geographical and political lines.
The message was simple and resonated with a great number of people: Rather than focus on tax cuts or more corporate welfare, why not try a new, bottom-up approach to stimulating the economy by forgiving student loan debt? Sadly, neither Congress nor the White House took this proposal seriously, and to be honest, it was written with tongue firmly planted in cheek; however, what I had written had the unexpected consequence of helping spark a true grassroots movement that continues to this day.
Within weeks of the essay, dozens of publications and news outlets were reporting on the proposal, with BusinessWeek dubbing me “a spokesman for a generation of people with student loan debt.” It was a role I never sought but one I proudly assumed out of a sense of civic duty.
Over time, I used my new political clout to work with former Representative Hansen Clarke in crafting HR 4170, “The Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012.” The petition I created in support of that legislation garnered nearly 1.2 million signatures, and Representative Clarke and I presented that petition to congressional leadership at a press conference on Capitol Hill.
During the course of my advocacy on student debt, I met some incredible activists and organizers. Wanting to expand the reach of my advocacy, I teamed up with Natalia Abrams, Kyle McCarthy and Aaron Calafato to form StudentDebtCrisis.org.
Together, we at StudentDebtCrisis.org have continued to advocate for the more than 40 million Americans who collectively owe more than $1.2 trillion in student loan debt. We’ve spoken at conferences, appeared in countless media reports about student debt, worked with Representative Karen Bass to reintroduce Hansen Clarke’s bill in the new Congress as HR 1330, “The Student Loan Fairness Act of 2013,” and spearheaded the #OutWithStudentDebt video project. Meanwhile, our artistic director, Aaron Calafato, tours the country with his one-man show, For Profit, depicting his time as an admissions counselor at an unnamed for-profit university.
We’ve also worked closely with progressive youth organizations like the Young Invincibles, Our Time, Generation Progress, Demos, MoveOn.org and many others. (Stay tuned for an important announcement on that front in the coming weeks!)
On January 28, President Obama gave his State of the Union Address and touched on this topic when he said:
We’re shaking up our system of higher education to give parents more information and colleges more incentives to offer better value, so that no middle-class kid is priced out of a college education. We’re offering millions the opportunity to cap their monthly student loan payments to 10 percent of their income, and I want to work with Congress to see how we can help even more Americans who feel trapped by student loan debt.
While StudentDebtCrisis.org agrees with the fundamental principles laid out in the president’s speech, we believe that so much more needs to be done to address the existing $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt. Because of this debt, more than 40 million Americans are not buying houses or cars, starting businesses or families, or otherwise contributing to rebuilding the economy.
While I continue to believe that across-the-board forgiveness of student loans would represent a major boost to economic growth, let’s face reality—it’s a pipe dream in this political climate. That said, there’s a whole host of reforms that Congress could undertake to dramatically improve the lives of those saddled with student loan debt.
In addition to creating reasonable and fair repayment options for student borrowers, allowing borrowers to refinance their loans and restoring basic consumer protections—such as bankruptcy protections and statutes of limitations on the collections of student loan debt—we believe it’s critical to bring defaulted borrowers back into the fold. As it stands, more than 7 million Americans are in default on their student loans, and for them, there’s simply no relief in sight.
Though I’m encouraged by the president’s words, we desperately need action. Five years ago, I came up with one idea for how to tackle the ever-growing student debt crisis; now it’s time for Congress and the president to work together to come up with real solutions that will have a real impact on the lives of student loan borrowers.