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July 2012

From Student Debt to Student Power

I recently sat down with The Daily Agenda to chat about student loan debt and how it relates to larger activist movements on- and off-campus.


Patrick St. John is a graphic designer by trade and student organizer by love. Patrick has been organizing and agitating since high school; as an undergraduate at Moravian College, he continued to agitate for student rights and power as both Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper and later as student government president (where he advocated abolishing the position).

Like so many other young Americans, he left school thousands of dollars in debt. During his off hours Patrick is still organizing and writing a book on student power. He blogs at forstudentpower.org.

We interview Patrick about the state of student debt and the prospects of breathing new life into the student movement.

DA: As student debt has now climbed to over a trillion dollars, who exactly benefits from having so many students owing so much money?

Patrick St. John: It’s always important to ask that question, because it’s certainly not the students and it’s clearly not the faculty. However one winner is the administration, including the Board of Trustees. The size of university administrations have soared over the past 40 years, far outpacing the regular growth of faculty and support staff.

There has been an increasing emphasis on running the university like a business. As a result you get a ton of administrative overhead and you get administrators who are more interested in growing the bottom line than in education. Right now a lot of campuses, especially the higher profile universities, hire President’s that have no experience in the classroom. They come from business backgrounds, or sometimes from the military or politics.

Often times funding decisions are not based on the consideration of the students or even the professors, but either the university in its quest for prestige or the vanity of big donors. You see this dynamic where trustees and other wealthy donors make donations that go into physical projects like new buildings, new facilities, or new sports stadiums. You can’t bolt a plaque onto a scholarship; but you can bolt a plaque onto a building. In the University of California system, the Regents have made it quite clear that they prefer tuition dollars over state-issued dollars, because they have much freer range in their use — so we see on campuses across the state massive physical projects, either completed and unused, or frozen in mid-construction. It’s yet another predictable result of the people most affected by university decisions having the least amount of say in making those decisions.

You also predictably see an increase in official corruption, with Trustee boards often including the heads of the very businesses the college contracts with (usually banks and construction firms).

DA: Do you detect any sort of change in what is being taught in our universities because of the increased role of private corporations in higher education?

PSJ: It’s a funny kind of feedback loop. On one end, as parents and students see rising increasing tuition combined with a sluggish economy, you see an emphasis on the “career ready majors”: the majors that are guaranteed to get a good-paying job above all else. Students begin asking themselves, “why am I taking this literature class when I could be taking another economics class?” It has that sort of effect.

On the other end of the feedback loop, universities are trying to attract more — and wealthier — students by touting the fact that “if you go here, we’re sure that you will get a job after you graduate.” There is actually an interesting case where a woman who attended a for-profit school went through school and of course racked up a ton of debt. When she graduated she sued the school because the school had essentially promised, through their advertising materials, that she would get a job. Her lawsuit failed, but the point she made is here to stay.

DA: Student loan debt rates are set to double in 8 days if Congress (at the time of this interview. It now appears that Congress will freeze student loan rates for one year). How meaningful are the Democrats’ proposals to stop this from happening?

PSJ: It’s a smart political move for Obama because he might be able to re-energize many of his supporters on his left flank. But we all need to be clear: this is not a fight between progressive and conservative policy positions. This is a fight between conservative and very conservative policy positions.

The interest rate on student loans is already too high, even at the current rate. For comparison, it’s roughly 450% more than the rate the Fed loans money to banks. The President is trying to spin this so that he can attach it to his “usual hope and change” mantra, when in reality it’s just a holding position. It’s keeping the conservative status quo intact in the face of something even more conservative and more corporate.

But there is a lot that he could do. He could lobby and push to allow student loan debt to be dischargeable in bankruptcy court. This could actually energize lots of students and alumni, those who are most pro-Obama but least likely to vote. There are many Democratic Senators and Congresspeople who are more progressive than Obama on this. So it’s not like this is something out of nowhere. It doesn’t tackle the systemic problem of why higher education is so unaffordable, but consumer-side student debt reform would be a step in the right direction.

DA: Among the four demands put out by the Occupy Student Debt movement was “a one-time debt forgiveness, or “jubilee.” What would this entail?

PSJ: Wiping away all current student debt would be wonderful, and not just because I’m saddled with it myself. It’d be a huge boon for the economy, and it’s a much more helpful use of government funds than throwing trillions at banks. While it has a snowball’s chance in hell of happening, it’s still a useful demand to organize around, for two reasons. First, it engages students in a concrete way and encourages them to start thinking outside the box in terms of what is possible. Second, the act of pushing and agitating for a debt jubilee allows you to change the tone of the conversation. And it’s always a plus when you can tell conservatives that the thing you’re agitating for is right there in the Bible!

In America’s fragmented and decentralized system of higher ed, students may actually find more success tackling this issue at private colleges and state university networks. If you can establish, one way or another, a certain slice of the student population who can have their debt eliminated by the university, such as those with low-incomes, who do public service, and so on, that’s a foothold, or fulcrum, that can potentially be used to widen that slice until it encompasses all students.

But in terms of the big picture, if the person on the street or your local representative rejects the idea, you already have them talking about student debt. You can change the conversation, which is I think one of the lasting legacies of the Occupy movement: changing the political narrative not necessarily to get some 12-point plan through, but to create openings for individuals and groups to push for actual change.

DA: In an article that you wrote for ForStudentPower.org, you say that:“when electoral democracy is this broken, it's never that straightforward, and we are demobilized by thinking it is. We need to throw out the old playbook and pick up a new one (or two).”
What is the new playbook and what does it have to say about building a more vibrant democracy?

PSJ: Right. So if the framing of the problem is that the laws on the books are simply incorrect, by either mistake or malice, and that the solution is simply to correct the laws, then our paths of organizing are pretty limited. We have a sort of knee-jerk deference to people in power that often comes along with a very warped idea of how change comes about. Hopefully the protests in Québec right now will disabuse students of that deference. Québec tuition has been consistently among the lowest in the Western world for decades now, the only reason being that students and allies took to the streets in mass numbers and prevented every attempted increase, even minimal ones.

It’s also about changing the facts on the ground until elites catch up. If you look at the labor movement, workers didn’t wait until the Wagner Act in 1935 to actually start organizing unions. Everything from basic union recognition to the 8 hour work day, those were examples of Congress catching up with the facts on the ground. Huge swaths of the American workforce had fought for and won an 8 hour work day by the time Congress made it law. Many African-Americans didn’t wait until the Civil Rights Acts to eat at whichever lunch counter they wanted, or sit wherever they wanted on the bus. Through radical, direct action to change the facts on the ground, everyday people were able to spur sweeping historical changes.

All the wonderful things liberals like about the New Deal and Great Society got done by a Democratic President because he had immense pressure from his left flank in the form of more progressive Democrats, socialists, communists, and anarchists — with youth in the mix in all these groups.

Unfortunately, through the fog of history, a lot of liberals think that you do not need a far left to get liberal reform done. You absolutely do. Change doesn’t come about by voting for a specific person, change comes about when whoever happens to be in office is pressured by the people to do what’s right. Obama famously told bankers in a private meeting in 2009 that he was the only one standing between them and the pitchforks. Given the state of things, and the track record of both the banks and Obama in the years since, it seems clear to me that we need a hell of a lot more people with pitchforks.

For people wanting to get involved in this fight, one of the most exciting developments is the upcoming National Student Power Convergence this August in Ohio. Students and youth from across the country will be there, and it’s where we may get a glimpse of the future of student organizing.


Read the rest of the interview at The Daily Agenda! >