Commemorating an anniversary we’d rather not remember

Two years ago today, student loan debt surpassed $1 trillion. It currently stands at $1.4 trillion and shows no signs of slowing. What do these numbers mean in human terms? They represent thousands of families who followed the rules, who believed in the promise that a college education would be the start of a better life but now find themselves starting their adult lives mired in debt. It represents homes and new cars not purchased, families not started, and millions of dollars not being used to purchase goods and services that can help our economy grow. It represents harassing phone calls from unaccountable loan servicers who did nothing to prevent people from going into default.

For others, that huge dollar figure means the road not traveled, that faced when with the choice of going into debt for a college education or not, some chose to forego that education. For those not willing to take on decades of debt, $1.4 trillion dollars represents the dream of higher education being priced out of the reach of all but the wealthiest Americans.

Finally, $1.4 trillion represents the cost of our society’s disinvestment in public higher education. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when someone could pay for most or all of the costs of college with a summer job. Now students pay with years of future earnings. As we’ve shifted the cost of higher education from the public to the students and their families, we’ve seen cuts that damage the quality of the schooling students are now paying so much to receive. Services that students rely upon to succeed have been cut, and more and more, colleges are relying on contingent educators who are denied the professional supports that are necessary to perform their jobs.

Does this make you angry? It should. State disinvestment in higher education, skyrocketing tuition, and exploding debt didn’t just happen. It is part an ongoing effort by political and economic elites to turn our public resources into sources of private profit. It is not a question of “if” we, as a society, can pay for college – as the richest nation in the world, we can certainly find the collective resources to make college affordable and accessible to anyone who wants to attend. It’s a question of priorities: will college continue to be accessible only to the wealthy (and serve as a vehicle to transfer wealth from the middle class to the wealthy via student loans)? Or will it be a collective investment we make that can improve the lives of individuals and our communities?

If you prioritize the latter, then you need to act. On this infamous anniversary, people are taking action around the country to demand that educational loan borrowers be afforded a measure of relief and that college be made more affordable. Here are a few things you can do today to help:

  • Jobs with Justice’s Debt-Free Future campaign is holding events around the country today – check here to find out where there’s one near you.
  • Other groups working together with the Higher Ed Not Debt campaign will also be holding events, which you can find here.
  • In order to mount a collective campaign against those who use the promise of higher education to place more and more of us in debt, we need to combat the stigma and shame associated with debt. Share your debt story with the folks at Student Debt Crisis by clicking here.
  • Want to help track the people at colleges, in businesses, and in banks who are steering money that could be paying for instruction towards profits? Help collaborate on‘s Wall Street Higher Ed Watch research wiki.
  • Call your state representatives and ask them what they’re doing to stop the rising cost of public higher education and explosion of student debt. Demand that they reinvest in instruction and student services at your state’s public colleges and universities.

$1.4 trillion dollars in educational debt didn’t happen overnight. Today’s actions are another step in a growing campaign that will turn the tide on the privatization of our system of public higher education. Public colleges and universities are a public good. People should not be indentured just for a shot at an economically secure future. Join the growing movement demanding Higher Ed Not Debt today.

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