Rising student debt sinks American youth

Student debt is a growing economic and moral crisis. The average U.S. college student today graduates with more than $25,000 in debt, and nationally, unpaid tuition debt approaches $1.2 trillion.

That’s trillion with a T. Twelve zeros.

Here at UC Berkeley, our tuition has increased 300 percent since 2002, and the average debt burden per student is $20,000.  Perhaps needless to say, post-graduation salaries have not risen 300 percent but in fact have declined in the past decade, with about 50 percent of graduates taking jobs that do not require a college education. Students from low-income households are regularly charged more than one-third of their family’s annual earnings for a year of tuition at a public college, making debt inevitable for many. On that note, the rate of black and Latino students graduating with unmanageable debt burdens is about 20 percent higher than that of their white counterparts.

The driving up of student debt is no doubt tied to higher tuition. That increase in tuition is based upon satisfying investor interest — investors who have taken advantage of a vital phenomenon: the elimination of public funding. When one sees how in these past years the state of California uses only $7 of every $1,000 of personal income toward education. In 1980, the state used $13 of that same amount. Thus, clearly the student debt crisis is in fact a funding crisis. This has pushed UC Berkeley to pursue interest rate swaps and other debt-driven profit strategies over the past decade, all guaranteed by our tuition and increasingly financed by the global market.

Students, faculty and workers bear the risks of these financial deals but rarely see the rewards. The prioritization of revenue and capital assets makes the university more of a financial business partner then a provider of a vital social good.

Student debt as a consequence of these processes constrains choices about the future. It perpetuates inequality even though the education system is meant to reduce inequality. It often leaves debtors feeling isolated and ashamed as they are hounded by debt collectors and judged by credit-scoring agencies. A debt-constrained and frustrated group of graduates makes the building of a participatory citizenry, a major pillar of public education, less and less of a possibility. Not to mention that the ever-increasing rate of defaults on student loans — in some schools higher than graduation rates — is beginning to look a lot like the mortgage market before the 2008 crisis.

The conventional debate over solutions to this crisis has been limited to Band-Aids: tinkering with interest rates on student loans such as Obama’s education bill. There has been no serious debate focused on addressing the underlying causes— skyrocketing tuition at “public” schools, stagnant wages, systemic unemployment and ongoing public service cuts. It is not that revenue is not there — it would only cost about one-tenth of a percent of the federal budget on top of what the government already pays to fully subsidize education. Rather, the issue is that policy is completely focused on perpetuating a debt-financed system that prioritizes financial institutions and those that benefit from their actions.

We in the Coalition for a Public Education believe higher education should be a debt-free and fully subsidized public good rather than an increasingly exclusive, high-priced service that forces us to think about our entire lives as investment decisions.

Composed of autonomous graduate students, undergraduate students and union representatives, the Coalition for Public Education holds that we should fight for the basic necessities of life, such as education free from debt. We are pursuing a long-term strategy for organizing in the UC system around this principle in solidarity with a national and global movement against debt and austerity. At UC Berkeley, this means we need to use debt as a means of unity, not individual shame, and this school year we invite you to help construct a new education-focused movement for a rebirth of public funding in education.

Join us for an open assembly on this topic Oct. 10 at 5 p.m. at Sather Gate.

Justin Tombolesi is a member of the Coalition for a Public Education.