Wednesday, June 20, 2007
When New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo launched an investigation last November into the dealings of the private student loan industry, he did not find a pretty sight. Exploitative lenders were providing kickbacks to universities and their personnel in hopes of landing on preferred lender lists distributed to students, an act of collusion that only hurt unsuspecting young people. With such nefarious corruption afoot, Congress acted swiftly. The House Education Committee interrogated Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, and Congress overwhelmingly passed the Student Loan Sunshine Act.
But in a scandal that directly violated student’s rights, their voices were mostly absent. Aside from a few opinion columns penned in student papers and a handful of blog posts blasting the crooked industry, virtually no campus witnessed an organized movement demanding justice for young lendees.
The silence extends beyond student loans. “There’s been basically no coordinated national effort to respond to [student rights abuses] that any random student could point to.” says Lucas Shapiro, 27, a member of the Coordinating Committee for the Young Democratic Socialists.
That’s not to say that American students are apolitical. Those under 24 lean well to the left of their elders, according to numerous national surveys like the one published by the New Politics Institute in February, which found that 29 percent of people between 18 and 22 consider themselves liberal or progressive as opposed to 17 percent who consider themselves moderate and 17 percent conservative. And students continually organize on behalf of marginalized people, whether it’s campus employees, sweatshop laborers abroad, or genocide victims in Sudan. What’s strange is that American students rarely advocate for themselves at the national level, a phenomenon exemplified by the dearth of undergraduate student unions on campuses nationwide.
Though largely absent in the United States, national undergraduate student unions are a staple of many education systems around the globe. Our friendly neighbors to the north are a primary example. The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), Canada’s largest student organization, represents half a million students at over 80 schools across the country. Created in 1981, CFS is the result of a merger between two existing organizations, the National Union of Students (NUS) and the Association of Ontario Student Councils (AOSC). Members of NUS, a left-leaning organization influenced both by the British student union model and 1960s anti-war activism, sought to build an organization that could collectively bargain for students’ rights on campuses in every province. To appeal to a wide range of students, NUS organizers joined efforts with the AOSC, a group that sold cheap European airfare to student travelers. By merging progressive policies with consumer advantages, organizers found a way to wed students’ short-term desires (cheap flights) and their long-term goals (lower tuition).