Saddled with student debt

November 2, 2010

Gary Lapon looks at the tremendous rise in personal debt resulting from the increasing cost of higher education--and the desperate consequences.

C. CRYN Johannsen, an "advocate for the educated indentured servant," wrote recently in the Huffington Post about the disturbing number of e-mails she receives from people whose student loans are so high that they've contemplated suicide as the only way out.

A recent article in the Valley Advocate, "Killer Loans," mentions a journalism graduate who owes $120,000 and anticipates paying as much as $1 million over 30 years, who said they would kill themselves if their cosigner, their mother, wouldn't be burdened with the debt.

As the Advocate points out, unlike many other forms of debt, student loans cannot be canceled by declaring bankruptcy, and lenders can take a cut of borrowers' paychecks or even Social Security checks if they fall behind payments on their loans.

"Delinquent" borrowers can even have their professional licenses revoked if they miss payments, an absurdity that makes it even more difficult for a borrower to pay.

According to the Los Angeles Times, "state budget cuts and declines in philanthropy and endowments helped push the cost of college tuition up much higher than general inflation across the country this year, amounting to an increase of 7.9 percent at public campuses and 4.5 percent at private ones."

A student looks over his student loan statement
A student looks over his student loan statement

Some states have seen even higher tuition hikes for public higher education, with students in Washington and Florida facing increases of well over 10 percent, and those in California facing increases as high as 30 percent.

This comes after decades of tuition hikes outpacing inflation. According to the College Board, in-state tuition at public four-year universities went up 54 percent from 1997-8 to 2007-8, and 49 percent the decade before that.

These increases are making higher education increasingly inaccessible for working-class people, especially people of color, and are saddling those who are able to make it through school with insurmountable debts in a historically poor job market (especially for young people), creating a situation where many recent graduates see suicide as the only way out of what Johannsen rightly refers to as modern-day "indentured servitude."

Instead of pursuing their dreams, graduates are forced to toil away, oftentimes at two or three jobs they hate (if they can even find a job) just so they can make their exorbitant monthly student loan payments.

MEANWHILE, AS the Advocate points out, lenders are making billions from interest and fees on student loans, profiting off of the misery of those who took on debt in order to finance their education, something that should be a basic human right.

Opponents of debt forgiveness argue that repaying one's student loans is a matter of "personal responsibility."

But why should individual workers be saddled with obscene debts in order to obtain a basic right like higher education, which benefits not just the individual student but all of society, which is enriched by the contributions of an educated populace? And meanwhile, the bankers who couldn't pay the debts they wracked up as a result of speculation, which crashed the economy, get bailed out.

Socialists should demand that all the debts burdening working-class people be erased.

Over the past 30-plus years, the top 1 percent has reaped almost all the gains of economic growth, exploiting the working class and poor at an ever-increasing rate. If anyone owes a debt, it's the rich who swim in more money than they could ever dream of spending, while the majority of people, those who produce that wealth, sink deeper into debt to pay for basic needs like education, housing, health care and food.

The bailouts and low interest rates for financial institutions reveal the capitalists' agenda: privatize profits, socialize the losses.

We should demand the opposite: socialize the wealth to meet the needs of all, and leave the lenders--almost always the wealthy lending us the money they appropriated by exploiting us in the first place--holding the bill.

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