Occupy Wall Street Moves Into New Phase With Student Debt Refusal Campaign

This afternoon at the newly cleared, heavily patrolled, and sparkling (Christmas lights!) Zuccotti Park, a group of activists dressed in caps and gowns made from garbage bags and draped with paper chains announced the official launch of the Occupy Student Debt Campaign.

Led by NYU professor Andrew Ross, the group is trying to get student loan borrowers to sign a pledge of "debt refusal." Once they reach one million signatures, everyone stops paying back their loans. The idea is not to pump up the profits of student loan servicers and big banks by creating a new group of defaulters, but to call attention to the spiraling cost of higher education, the mounting pile of student loans ($958 billion as of this writing), and the Dickensian situation many borrowers find themselves in as a result of the lack of basic consumer protections like bankruptcy on student loans, especially private student loans.

"I strongly believe my entire life—and I'm 50 now—was ruined by student loan debt," said Johanna Clearfield, an organizer of the campaign. Her $20,000 loan is over $50,000 after default.

This announcement marks a new phase of the #OWS movement. As the focus shifts away from tent cities and confrontations with police, we're likely to see a series of similar single-issue campaigns channeling the energy and borrowing the media spotlight of Occupy. Student loan debt, which enriches Wall Street through securitization even as it punches holes in the dreams of legions of young people, has been central to the grievances expressed around Occupy, making it an excellent place to start. (This campaign is not to be confused with Occupy Student Debt, which has a website and Facebook page, or with the efforts of Student Loan Justice founder and Occupier Alan Collinge, who was present at the Zuccotti Park launch holding up a sign calling for restoring bankruptcy protection on student loans.)

It's also very much in the spirit of the Occupy movement that the Occupy Student Debt Campaign has chosen unilateral direct action (just stop writing those checks) instead of addressing a set of demands to the federal government or anyone else. Unfortunately, their chosen tactic has given them a hard row to hoe. They're wide open to criticism that they're just encouraging people to back out on their obligations. "It's not a free ride out there and it's time that everyone realizes that," stated a typical comment on an Inside Higher Ed piece about the campaign. Nor does suggesting that the federal government should just pick up the tab for free public higher education, which has historically been funded by states, read like a serious policy proposal in this day and age.

As someone who's been writing about student loan debt for a long time, what's most interesting to me here is the role of faculty members in speaking up about the problem. NYU, where Ross teaches labor history and political theory, is among the most expensive private universities in the country. The website includes a pledge for faculty to sign, reading in part, "We faculty can no longer acquiesce to the ruinous impact on our students of the surging cost of higher education." It takes courage for those who draw their paychecks from our current higher education system to stand up and say that it's no longer tenable, and it might lead to some real change.

[Image of Johanna Clearfield: We Are The 99 Percent on Tumblr]

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24 Comments

  • ssgcmwatson

    I'm all for restoring bankruptcy protection for student loans, but I think that the colleges themselves should be the lenders.  If they want to charge tens of thousands of dollars per year to offer courses like "Philosophy and Star Trek" or "Queer Musicology," then perhaps they should bear the burden when students can't find gainful employment!

  • Christopher

    Cool thing is that as of this posting, and only 5 days since the launch of this campaign, there are 1022 debtors pledges, 220 faculty pledges, and 223 non-debtor pledges. Looking pretty successful so far.

  • g vanderleun

    "It takes courage for those who draw their paychecks from our current higher education system to stand up and say that it's no longer tenable, and it might lead to some real change."

    Oh stuff and nonsense. It takes no courage whatsoever. They know it and, if you reflect on it for a nanosecond, you know it too. Nothing fundamental is going to change for these "hero professors." It's just typical no-risk BS. Get real.

  • Briana

    To everyone who remarks upon the laziness and bad decisions of those in severe student loan debt, I partly agree. 

    [WARNING: Long story to follow]I'm a twenty-something NYU grad with six figures of student loan debt and, due to interest, will spend the next thirty years of my life paying $1,000/month. I have worked jobs I'm less than proud of, including a job which, though completely legal and even corporate, caused half of my Southern Christian family to disown me.I attended NYU's school for Individualized Study, where I created my own major (warning flags!) in a field combining creative writing and psychology. I took only one science or math class, to fill the school's prerequisite, leaving me woefully unprepared in my attempts to reverse my undergrad mistakes and attend graduate school in a relevant field, like economics or even psychology. As is, I'll have to spend at least two years at another undergraduate institution in order to supplement my transcript enough to even have a shot at acceptance to a grad program.I made a huge mistake in attending NYU. A mistake I will be paying for for, almost literally, the rest of my life. I hate that interest rates are so high and that loans are virtually inescapable--that a mis-step or a missed payment is the (seasonally-appropriate) equivalent of tripping in the midst of a Black Friday crowd: it's nearly impossible to rise from your fall, however short-lived or accidental, thus perpetuating a cycle of depression, delinquency and defaulting.Here's the thing.I was the first in my family to go to college. I graduated near the top of my class from a competitive arts boarding school. I won awards, held leadership positions in relevant activities, and gave the graduation speech. My school pressured students to not settle for mediocrity (read: attending college at the state university) and to shoot for the stars, a combination, I believe, of earnest encouragement and the desire for impressive alumni credentials. I applied to four schools and was accepted to all, with full-funding, the exception being NYU, who offered me an impressive financial aid package.OH WAIT.The "financial aid package" NYU presented to me was comprised of one (1) $6,000/semester scholarship, a Pell Grant, and over $40k per academic year in private loans.I'm not saying my family is stupid. I'm saying that we were blinded by the light. My parents, both hard workers and smart people, had never attended college. Although they had lived at the poverty line for several years, their debts were in the form of mortgages and credit card bills. My family's income was less per year than the bill of one year at NYU, I had no college fund, and in spite of applying to over forty scholarships, I received absolutely no extra funding. My dad took me aside one night during my decision-making process to show me a Mark Twain quote about how you'll regret more the opportunities you didn't take than the ones you did. Inspired by my dad's surprising show of blatant emotion and consideration, I accepted my spot at my dream school, NYU. "It's a lot of money," my family said, "but we know you'll find a way. You'll get that novel published. You can do it. We believe in you."The support I received from friends and family was tremendous. I was breaking free of my home state, jetting off to New York City to follow my dream of becoming a writer. I was high on acceptance and praise. My first year, I lived in a dorm right on Washington Square. I worked a part-time job as a teacher's assistant, enjoyed my classes, and used my pithy savings to drink while underage, go to concerts and readings and buy lots of $1 books at the Strand.Then. At the end of my first year, I saw my loan bill, lurking, waiting for the right time (post-graduation) to seize upon me like some toxic wave. $40k didn't seem like too much, though. With more trepidation ad increased fiscal responsibility, I continued through sophomore year. I worked at least one full-time job for the entirety of my sophomore-senior years in order to support myself (and I lived no great extravagance--a $450 apartment deep in Bushwick). Ironically, in working these full-time jobs, I was unable to take advantage of the educational opportunities NYU had to offer -- the whole reason I had accepted admission in the first place. I succumbed to the economic fallacy of "I've already come this far, might as well just finish my degree" because, by the time I realized what was happening, I was already halfway through my junior year. --What I am calling for, and what I hope to ardently pursue in the near future, is a program generating student loan awareness to high school seniors. The average high school senior does not understand the ramifications of student debt. I don't mean to belittle these students or their intelligence, and there are no doubt young adults who can conceptualize inescapable financial burden. Nonetheless, it seems asinine for an adult's first financial decision as such to be one that can cost them their entire lives. High school seniors need to be made aware, to the greatest extent possible, of the onus they will be shouldering should they choose to take out loans. INFORMATION is key. And not just pamphlets with figures. Students need to see the results of student loan debt to people like them. They need to understand that although, yes, they might be that one student whose $150k degree pays off within five years, there is a very real chance, especially in this economy, that their loans will shackle them for the rest of their lives.Like many others, I made a stupid decision. As a consenting adult, this was my fault. These loans are mine to bear, forever and ever, amen. However, I believe if I had been informed re: the consequences of student loan debt, and had they been presented to me in a way that made direct sense, I would have chosen to attend another school. And, frankly, I believe I would be a happier person.If anyone would like to talk with me further about this matter, or about ideas for promoting student loan awareness, please feel free to email at: geronimoquincyjones [at] gmail. 

  • AMCarter33

    Ask Andrew Ross to forego his salary as his contribution to the cause. Let's see if he is willing to put up or shut up.

  • AMCarter33

    Today we mourn the passing of a beloved old friend, Common Sense , who has been with us for many years. No one knows for sure how old he was, since his birth records were long ago lost in bureaucratic red tape. He will be remembered as having cultivated such valuable lessons as:
    - Knowing when to come in out of the rain;
    - Why the early bird gets the worm;
    - Life isn't always fair;
    - and maybe it was my fault.

    Common Sense lived by simple, sound financial policies (don't spend more than you can earn) and reliable strategies (adults, not children, are in charge).

    His health began to deteriorate rapidly when well-intentioned but overbearing regulations were set in place. Reports of a 6-year-old boy charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate; teens suspended from school for using mouthwash after lunch; and a teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student, only worsened his condition.

    Common Sense lost ground when parents attacked teachers for doing the job that they themselves had failed to do in disciplining their unruly children.

    It declined even further when schools were required to get parental consent to administer sun lotion or an aspirin to a student; but could not inform parents when a student became pregnant and wanted to have an abortion.

    Common Sense lost the will to live as the churches became businesses; and criminals received better treatment than their victims.

    Common Sense took a beating when you couldn't defend yourself from a burglar in your own home and the burglar could sue you for assault.

    Common Sense finally gave up the will to live, after a woman failed to realize that a steaming cup of coffee was hot. She spilled a little in her lap, and was promptly awarded a huge settlement.

    Common Sense was preceded in death, by his parents, Truth and Trust, by his wife, Discretion, by his daughter, Responsibility, and by his son, Reason.

    He is survived by his 4 stepbrothers;
    I Know My Rights
    I Want It Now
    Someone Else Is To Blame
    I'm a Victim (of my own stupidity)

    Not many attended his funeral because so few realized he was gone.
    If you still remember him, pass this on. If not, join the majority and do nothing.

  • Mario Machon

    I'm 99% all the way, but that means attacking greed. Wall Street, greed. The standard issue D.C. Politician, greed. Teacher's Unions who lobby for higher pay yet promote tenure over merit (possibly the real reason results are lacking), greed. Students who feel entitled to something, greed. You cannot deny it. Yes there are issues in almost everything and anything related to finance, but these students need to start showing their smarts and start making real changes in the world.

    Why is education in America taking a dump? Because the previous educated generation didn't pass on a whole lot to the next one.. like the value of hard work, or really just survival in general.

    My story: I'm an American-Salvadoran male from Lynwood (next to Compton for those too lazy to whip out Google maps), millenial born in 1982 (just turned 29), Graduated Lynwood High '00, got into Loyola Marymount, racked up amazing debt (CCs too, by virtue of obsession with car audio and the import scene.. I was young and foolish), knocked up college sweetheart, went to work Monday after graduation in '04, got a job at a startup (Jewish owned.. worked 12-14 hours in straight time, no time and a half ever), company went out of business in 06, money troubles ensued, divorce followed, came near bankruptcy, started an online tshirt store, got a whatever job, started a small car repair shop, no longer a whatever employee at the whatever job (well-paid manager now.. and glad to pay my taxes), and here I am today reading this while trying to mastermind a way to create self-sustaining "smart" and "green" local communities that will simultaneously address poverty levels, unemployment, and education.

    Did I mention I was an ART major?

    Anyway, in Johanna's case as stated in the comments, there were forces outside of her control that interfered with her repayment. There should be human compassion when dealing with that kind of circumstance. But everyone else whose been able-bodied the whole time, get your minds out of "me, me, me" mode and go do something amazing!

    P.S. Thanks for the soapbox, Fast Co.. you're alright.

  • Kenn Space

    January 20, 2012 –  Occupy the Courts!

    Move To Amend is planning bold action to mark this date — Occupy the Courts — a one day occupation on Friday January 20, 2012, of the Federal Courts, including the Supreme Court of the United States and as many of the 89 U.S. Court Buildings as we can.

    Sign the petition         movetoamend.org

    Time to GET MONEY OUT of politics

    Bailouts. War. Unemployment. Our government is bought, and we’re angry. Now, we’re turning our anger into positive action. By signing this petition, you are joining our campaign to get money out of politics. Our politicians won’t do this. But we will. We will become an unrelenting, massive organized wave advocating a Constitutional amendment to get money out of politics.

    Please sign the petition!

    http://www.getmoneyout.com/

    http://open.salon.com/blog/ken...

  • Kathleen Kennedy

    It continues to boggle my mind when people make life decisions that they don't like, then attempt to blame someone else. The woman in the picture is no spring chicken, and frankly looks like she's spent a fair amount of time as a party gal. Why hasn't she pushed herself to achieve more in her working life, if she didn't want to be a secretary? No CEO started out as the CEO. And of course, she notes that she now owes $50K to the IRS because of someone else's mistake. Sure thing. It's always someone else's fault. She CHOSE the life she has, yet it's someone else's fault. I have absolutely NO sympathy! If she has debt, then do something besides being a secretary!!!! It shows that there is NO initiative on her part. And if she wandered into my office asking for a job, I would not hire her.

    Those who think outside the box, and approach their careers with a working business plan or a unique idea will succeed. For example, in the area where I am, there is a haunted house that has been so successful, it is now in it's 28th year of operation. From what I've read, the owner of that place has an annual revenue of almost $400K. Imagine. Doing something really fun and interesting, and taking in a large amount of money, in a 2-month period. All because someone thought outside the box. Even if the owner has to pay half of that revenue for actors, and new scenes, insurance, taxes, etc., that still leaves him with a substantial amount of income per year.

  • Gerald Irish

    Sorry but this doesn't make any sense.  First of all, why are people racking up 5 or 6 digits of debt going to private schools when they could spend significantly less at a public school and get a good education just the same?  Secondly, if you go to school and major in a subject that isn't conducive to getting a job that will make you enough money to pay off your debt, whose fault is that?  If you got an English degree and have $50,000 in student loans of course you're going to have trouble paying it.Do student loans need reform?  Absolutely.  Do college students need to change how they think about the value proposition of higher education?  Absolutely.

  • Anya Kamenetz

    From Johanna via email: Dear
    "hemidude" and "Aquatiger" I am the "chick" in
    the photo "trapped and working as a secty which I loathe"  And
    hell, yeah, I'm plenty angry.  Since when is "anger" an
    inappropriate response to oppressive conditions?  Political writer and
    social commentator Christopher Lasch said, "Bureaucracy takes social
    grievances and turns them into personal problems."  This "blame
    game" of what was wrong with me for taking out loans to get a degree has
    to stop.  47% of students who took out loans in 2005 are now in
    default.  Here is just one reason:  The terms of the repayment are
    often an "all or nothing" proposition.  When I consolidated my
    loans and moved them from Sallie Mae to Wm Ford  -- I was told that
    William Ford will allow "income based" payments.  After
    transferring, Wm. Ford demanded $450 a month.  When I offered to pay half
    that, it was rejected.  They will accept no less than the total.  I
    am already two months behind on my rent - where am I going to get $450 a
    month?  What is not factored in are any kind of extenuating
    circumstances.  I had a brain hemmorage when I was 30 and was on
    disability for a year.  The student loan was placed on deferment for that
    year -- accruing $6000 in penalties and interest.  Student loans are not
    HDTVs.  The "chick" in the photo is me and hell yeah, I am
    furious.  See http://studentloanjustice.org/... 
    and http://www.occupystudentloanca... 
    for more facts.

  • Fred Sanford

    Dear "chick" in the photo,

    It is not someone else's responsibility that YOU made the wrong decision. Yes, it is a hard situation and yes I feel badly for you. But if you wait around for other people to fix your problems, you will always have them.

    Dear Anya Kamenetz,

    It doesn't matter if "higher education is a public good", it is TOTALLY unreasonable and unacceptable to expect taxpayers to pay for anyone who decides to college or to expect colleges to forgive student loans just because someone isn't motivated enough to pay back their loans. People generally do not respect what is GIVEN to them near as much as what they have to WORK for.

    And furthermore, to both of you, it has been proven by people like Zac Bissonette (go read his book "Debt Free U") that working full time and going to college at the same time are not only possible but beneficial to both the student's grades and career opportunities.

    I sincerely hope that young Americans in high school right now will take a clue from these people on the streets protesting right now and make better decisions with their finances, their education, and their careers.

  • M B

    It's good to expose the collusion between private banks and private universities which get massive public subsidies and tax breaks. Their profits are upfront and risk-free, so that's why tuition costs keep rising.

    It's time to stop blaming the youth for wanting to learn and improve their wages. There's massive unemployment and debt soaks up any wage gain.  It's about the public good and a right to an education, not a purported "irresponsible" consumption. Majors don't matter anyway with the deepening economic crisis. All higher education has been forced to go private due to disinvestment by the government ... just another example of public money building private fortunes, whether in medicine, housing, or transportation.

    Once upon a time in the US, people were citizens not consumers. Yet even Rick Perry understands that every resident, including non-citizens, deserves an education, in part because they pay taxes whether they are citizens or not, and that it is better and cheaper for society as a whole. Just like the roads, firefighters, clean water, literacy, and rest of it that the right assumes is cost-free.

    Let the 1% pay more taxes so that the right will stop whining about their precious income tax. The popular right clearly wants a tax break and if they finally criticized the rich instead of fantasizing about becoming one of them, then they might get what they want.

    Besides, rightists never complain when they pay for the military and police, although half the federal budget pays for the military alone. And they're always ready to get aggressive with the weak but never really tough with the bankster bosses, who got more than $16 trillion in secret loans so far, according the Government Accountability Office. Why do I suspect that the banks need another bailout?

  • johanna

    Dear "hemidude" and "Aquatiger" I am the "chick" in the photo "trapped and working as a secty which I loathe"  And hell, yeah, I'm plenty angry.  Since when is "anger" an inappropriate response to oppressive conditions?  Political writer and social commentator Christopher Lasch said, "Bureaucracy takes social grievances and turns them into personal problems."  This "blame game" of what was wrong with me for taking out loans to get a degree has to stop.  47% of students who took out loans in 2005 are now in default.  Here is just one reason:  The terms of the repayment are often an "all or nothing" proposition.  When I consolidated my loans and moved them from Sallie Mae to Wm Ford  -- I was told that William Ford will allow "income based" payments.  After transferring, Wm. Ford demanded $450 a month.  When I offered to pay half that, it was rejected.  They will accept no less than the total.  I am already two months behind on my rent - where am I going to get $450 a month?  What is not factored in are any kind of extenuating circumstances.  I had a brain hemmorage when I was 30 and was on disability for a year.  The student loan was placed on deferment for that year -- accruing $6000 in penalties and interest.  Student loans are not HDTVs.  The "chick" in the photo is me and hell yeah, I am furious.  See http://studentloanjustice.org/...  and http://www.occupystudentloanca...  for more facts.

  • Scott Gauthier

    Short backstory. Dropped out of college, got a job, married, had three children, lived comfortably. Then I got laid off, collected unemployment, realized the industry I was in was never going to fully recover, got a night job that helps pay for school, going back to school.
    Moral of the story is hard work and sacrifice pay off. Quit complaining and do something about it. It seems that most people want everything given to them for nothing.

  • Anya Kamenetz

    A couple of points: 1) higher education is a public good, not just a private good. The spiraling cost of higher education and the attendant burden of debt has caused the US to fall since the 1970s from most educated nation to 11th. It also makes our society less open and mobile. This hurts our economic competitiveness. It hurts YOUR opportunities.
    2) As far as student loans being a gamble--when any loan is taken out, both borrower and lender are supposed to assume risk. That's how capitalism works. But in the case of student loans, there is no bankruptcy protection, so the risk is skewed. The borrower has zero recourse, while the lender can impose any crazy penalties and interest rates they want. What on earth gives a lender the swagger to demand 250% of a $20,000 debt, unless they're coming with a hammer to break your legs?

  • M B

    It's good to expose the collusion between private banks and private universities which get massive public subsidies and tax breaks. Their profits are upfront and risk-free, so that's why tuition costs keep rising.

    It's time to stop blaming the youth for wanting to learn and improve their wages. There's massive unemployment and debt soaks up any wage gain.  It's about the public good and a right to an education, not a purported "irresponsible" consumption. Majors don't matter anyway with the deepening economic crisis. All higher education has been forced to go private due to disinvestment by the government ... just another example of public money building private fortunes, whether in medicine, housing, or transportation.

    Once upon a time in the US, people were citizens not consumers. Yet even Rick Perry understands that every resident, including non-citizens, deserves an education, in part because they pay taxes whether they are citizens or not, and that it is better and cheaper for society as a whole. Just like the roads, firefighters, clean water, literacy, and rest of it that the right assumes is cost-free.

    Let the 1% pay more taxes so that the right will stop whining about their precious income tax. The popular right clearly wants a tax break and if they finally criticized the rich instead of fantasizing about becoming one of them, then they might get what they want.

    Besides, rightists never complain when they pay for the military and police, although half the federal budget pays for the military alone. And they're always ready to get aggressive with the weak but never really tough with the bankster bosses, who got more than $16 trillion in secret loans so far, according the Government Accountability Office. Why do I suspect that the banks need another bailout?

    http://sanders.senate.gov/news...

    Here's a short overview of the student debt scheme:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/...

  • aquatiger

    The woman in the picture says it all.  Her last line says she is "trapped working as a secretary which I loathe."  These occupy movements are nothing more than people angry with the way their decisions have turned out.  Angry that they gambled on themselves with student loan debt, which didn't work out for them.  Angry that they chose a profession that didn't pay as much as someone else they know.  Angry that they bought a house they couldn't afford.  Just plain angry.  And it is always someone else's fault.  

    The millisecond that these people start to turn their anger toward themselves they will fix their problems.

  • hemidude

    Yeah, I'm 52, and didn't go to college because I couldn't afford it and thought that borrowing money to go to school was irresponsible.

    This chick gets in debt, has the benefit of a college education, which we keep being told is worth an extra $1 million over our lifetime, and she couldn't manage to pay off $20k over nearly 30 years?

    This really is a big piece of what is wrong - I don't know the specifics, but honestly, she likely got a degree that had no value or she spent her money on latte's and whatever else her "lifestyle demanded.

  • Justin Roff-Marsh

    OMG. If this woman is so unproductive that a $20,000 loan ruined her entire live, what hope was there for her in the first place?

    It's almost like the reporter regards laziness as a virtue.

    How far we have fallen!

    Justin