• 11.21.11

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]

About the author

She’s the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her next book, The Test, about standardized testing, will be published by Public Affairs in 2015.