A common phrase said to the millions of young people that seek higher education is that “college is a ladder of upward mobility.” Unfortunately, from trade school to college, this ladder is sinking in a swamp of $1.7 trillion of student loan debt.
But college students are pushing back against the growing weight of this crisis. Students at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) recently joined the Student Debt Crisis Center (SDCC) in a burgeoning “Free the Degree” college outreach coalition. The student government unanimously passed legislation calling on President Biden to cancel all federal student loan debt. The Associated Students of UC Riverside (ASUCR), which represents over 24,000 students, joined the Free the Degree coalition because of the economic benefits and the moral imperative of debt cancellation.
From the 2008 Great Recession to the Covid pandemic, college students’ political perspectives have been shaped by major economic and health crises. In both of these major events, the wealthy and well-connected got bailouts while working people were left out to dry. Throughout the pandemic, students have seen the federal government rush to pump over $1 trillion into Wall Street, while President Biden has still not fulfilled his promise to broadly cancel student debt. Many current students, seeing the looming crisis, have thrown in their lot with supporting federal loan forgiveness.
The message from students is clear: Now is the time to take immediate action to end the student debt crisis once and for all. With 20 million college students nationwide, there is immense potential for mass actions, well-coordinated events, and formal legislation from student organizations and student governments. In fact, while major cities like Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and others have passed resolutions calling for student debt cancellation, the Student Debt Crisis Center and student-governments nationwide have been working to pass similar proposals in colleges across the country. In January, 111 student body leaders representing over 1.4 million students across the country wrote a letter to President Biden urging him to use his executive authority to cancel student debt. “We know the burden of student loan debt is devastating for our economy and preventing a generation of young people from accruing wealth, pursuing entrepreneurial ventures, and starting families,” said Ranen Miao, a signatory on the letter and student body president at Washington University in St. Louis.
Calling on the White House to cancel student debt is what students at Riverside and across the country need, and is ultimately good for the US economy. UCR students’ strong middle- and working-class background made UCR a natural hotbed of support for student debt cancellation. Since over half of UCR’s undergraduate population are first-generation college students, many of these students are particularly swamped with navigating the puzzle of student loans and the racking mountain of their debt.
ASUCR Senator Christian Martinez was a key player in writing and pushing UCR’s student government to take action on canceling student debt. “I helped pass the student debt resolution at UCR’s student government because debt is something that heavily affects people like me. First-generation Hispanic students are some of the affected people and I wanted to step up in an attempt to make a change,” Senator Martinez said.
A college education is meant to serve as a tool to achieve generational wealth; now it acts as a debt sentence that disproportionately impacts students of color and low-income students. Last year, the Roosevelt Institute found that canceling $50,000 of student debt would immediately increase the wealth of Black Americans by 40 percent, dramatically reducing the racial wealth gap in America. Student debt cancellation provides an opportunity for President Biden to promote racial equity, while also boosting annual GDP by up to $108 billion per year.
A recent CNBC poll found that 81 percent of student loan borrowers have had to delay key life milestones, suggesting that this debt acts as an anchor holding down 45 million Americans. The last two years have shown that a world without student debt is possible. On March 13, 2020, President Trump implemented the Covid-19 Loan Payment Pause for federal student loans. In the time that payments have been paused, Pew Charitable Trusts found that 59 percent of borrowers were using money that would have gone toward loan payments on necessary expenses such as food and rent. Now, with the payment pause set to end on May 1, the economy stands to lose $85 billion from the national economy in the next year.
But the work of student leaders across the country on the issue of student debt is cause for optimism. “Throughout history, students and young people have been central to creating meaningful change in America,” said SDCC President Natalia Abrams. “Now is the time for students to band together and use their collective power and voice to demand change.”