Five years ago today, I wrote an essay called “Forgive Student Loan Debt to Stimulate the Economy,” which I posted to a new group I had created on Facebook. To my great surprise, the essay wasn’t just read by the ten or so friends I had expected to read it, but rather, by hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life, cutting across all generational, geographical and political lines.
The message was simple, and clearly resonated with a great number of people: rather than tax cuts or more corporate welfare, why not try a new, bottom-up approach to stimulating the economy by forgiving student loan debt? Obviously, neither Congress nor the White House took this proposal seriously, and to be honest, it was written with tongue firmly implanted in cheek, however; what I had written had the unexpected consequence of sparking a true, grassroots movement that continues to this day.
Within weeks of authoring the essay, dozens of publications and news outlets were reporting on what I had proposed, with BusinessWeek dubbing me as “a spokesman for a generation of people with student loan debt.” It was a role I never sought or intended, but one I proudly took on, feeling a civic duty to stick with what I had started.
Over time, I used my new political clout to try to effect change. I worked with former Representative Hansen Clarke (D-MI) in crafting H.R. 4170, “The Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012.” The petition I created in support of that legislation garnered nearly 1.2 million signatures and Rep. Clarke and I presented that petition to Congressional Leadership at a press conference on Capitol Hill.
During the course of my advocacy on the issue of student debt, I met some incredible activists and organizers who were doing excellent work on the issue of student debt. Wanting to expand the reach of my advocacy, I teamed up with Natalia Abrams, Kyle McCarthy and Aaron Calafato to form StudentDebtCrisis.org.
Together, we at StudentDebtCrisis.org have continued to advocate for the 40+ million Americans who collectively owe more than $1.2 Trillion of student loan debt. We’ve spoken at conferences, appeared in countless media reports about student debt, worked with Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) to reintroduce Hansen Clarke’s bill in the new Congress as H.R. 1330, “The Student Loan Fairness Act of 2013,” spearheaded the #OutWithStudentDebt video project, all while our Artistic Director, Aaron Calafato, tours the country with his one-man-show, FOR PROFIT, about his time as an admissions counselor at an unnamed for-profit university.
We’ve also worked closely with a number of progressive organizations who are similarly committed to solving the nation’s student debt crisis, including Young Invincibles, Our Time, Generation Progress, Demos, MoveOn.org and many, many others. (In fact, stay tuned for an important announcement on that front in the coming weeks!)
In short, for the past 5 years, we’ve been committed to doing all that we can to help solve the nation’s ever-growing student debt crisis.
Last night, President Obama gave his State of the Union Address and touched on this topic when he said:
We’re shaking up our system of higher education to give parents more information and colleges more incentives to offer better value, so that no middle- class kid is priced out of a college education. We’re offering millions the opportunity to cap their monthly student loan payments to 10 percent of their income, and I want to work with Congress to see how we can help even more Americans who feel trapped by student loan debt.
While StudentDebtCrisis.org agrees on the fundamental principles laid out in the president’s speech, we believe that so much more needs to be done to address the already existing $1.2 Trillion in outstanding student loan debt. Because of these debts, more than 40 million Americans are not buying houses or cars, starting businesses or families, or otherwise contributing to rebuilding the economy.
While I continue to believe that across-the-board forgiveness of student loans would represent a major boost to economic growth, let’s face reality – it’s a pipe dream in this political climate. That said, there’s a whole host of reforms that Congress could undertake to dramatically improve the lives of over 40 million Americans with student loan debt.
In addition to creating reasonable and fair repayment options for student borrowers, allowing borrowers to refinance their loans, and restoring basic consumer protections to student loans, such as bankruptcy protections and statutes of limitations on the collections of student loan debt, we believe it is extremely important to bring defaulted borrowers back into the fold. As it is, over 7 million Americans are in default on their student loans and, for them, there’s simply no relief in sight.
Though I’m encouraged by the President’s words, we desperately need action, and we need it now. Five years ago today, I came up with one idea for how to tackle the ever-growing student debt crisis; now it’s time for Congress and the President to work together to come up with real solutions that will have a real impact on the lives of student loan borrowers.