By Amanda M. Fairbanks
NEW YORK — Early Monday afternoon, a group of faculty and student organizers unveiled the Occupy Student Debt campaign from the southeast corner of lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.
As part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the national Occupy Student Debt campaign asks that borrowers default on their student loan payments after one million individuals have similarly signed the debtors’ pledge.
“Since the first days of the Occupy movement, the agony of student debt has been a constant refrain,” announced Andrew Ross, a professor at New York University, to a crowd of more than 100 assembled in Zuccotti Park. “We’ve heard the harrowing personal testimony about the suffering and humiliation of people who believe their debts will be unpayable in their lifetime.”
Ross, who teaches social and cultural analysis at NYU, helped to unveil the campaign on Monday. He is also an active member of the Occupy Wall Street education and empowerment working group, which is spearheading the student-debt refusal pledge.
In addition to asking debtors to stop making their student loan payments after a million signers have made a similar pledge, the campaign hopes to draw attention to the connection between the increasing cost of college and rising student debt loads.
Further, the campaign aims to highlight the necessity of federally funded institutions of higher education, interest-free student loans and a requirement that for-profit and private universities reveal their internal finances — not to mention the abolishment of all current student debt.
As of Monday evening, according to the campaign website’s own calculations, 120 individuals had signed the debtors’ pledge, 64 had signed the faculty pledge of support and 26 had signed the non-debtors’ pledge of support.
But Anya Kamenetz, author of “Generation Debt” and “The Edupunks’ Guide,” cautions borrowers against romanticizing the notion of what it means for student borrowers to actually default on their loans — including the garnishing of future wages and tax refunds, among other penalizing tactics.
Additionally, Kamenetz said she sees the college graduate population as being less likely to garner widespread sympathy by virtue of their relative privilege.
“As an organizing tactic, mass default is a little bit difficult to get mainstream America to embrace, since there’s this very strong moral and ethical belief that people don’t walk away from loans they voluntarily assumed,” said Kamenetz, who has written about the issue of student loan debt for seven years. “There’s this deep, pervading sense that since I had to pay off my loans, you should have to pay off your loans, too.”
Besides the difficulty of amassing widespread public support, Carl Van Horn, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, also said defaulting on student loan debt will have long-lasting consequences.
“Defaulting is considered a financial felony that will continue to haunt you,” Van Horn said. “Student loans are not something you can easily walk away from, and defaulting is hardly the same thing as missing a credit card payment. It really is a a black mark.”
Black mark or not, Thomas Gokey and many others see little in the way of viable alternatives.
Gokey, an adjunct professor of visual art at Syracuse University, participated in Monday’s announcement. He said it was not uncommon for his students at Syracuse to graduate with upwards of $200,000 in debt. Gokey said he is personally on the hook for about $100,000.
As a professor at NYU, where undergraduate debt loads average $35,000, Ross said he considers his salary to be financed by the willingness of his students to assume vast debt loads.
“There’s been a lot of talk around student debt, but not a lot of action,” Ross said. “Even in the best of times, it was a very heavy burden to carry for decades. But now, with chronic unemployment, it’s morally unsustainable.”
At the faculty level, it’s a sentiment shared by Ashley Dawson, an associate professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
“I see my students who have to work not only one but two jobs just to afford our relatively reasonable tuition rates,” said Dawson, who has taught in the CUNY system since 2001. As part of a formal week of student-led action, Monday’s announcement in Zuccotti Park culminated in a rally in Madison Square Park, followed by a march to Baruch College, where the CUNY Board of Trustees met to consider a potential tuition increase.
“For students faced with debt, this campaign is important because it will help provide them with a collective organizing vehicle,” said Dawson, a member of the education and empowerment working group. “We’re aiming to galvanize sweeping political change.”