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COVID Crisis Highlights Urgency of Canceling All Student Debt

44 million student loan borrowers across the U.S. are increasingly vulnerable amid the pandemic and economic crisis.

44 million student loan borrowers across the U.S. are increasingly vulnerable amid the pandemic and economic crisis.

44 million Americans hold over 1.6 trillion dollars of student debt and the cost of higher education continues to skyrocket. And it’s the poor, people of color and women who are most severely impacted. The COVID-19 crisis highlights the vulnerability of debt when people are unable to find jobs or pay off loans. We look at two urgent solutions to the debt crisis. First, reporter Kathryn Styer Martinez takes a look at a free school called Berea College in Kentucky. Then, we discuss the politics of debt and how to organize a debt strike, with Thomas Gokey from the Debt collective.


Salima Hamirani: You’re listening to Making Contact: I’m Salima Hamirani and on today’s Making Contact: We look at two solutions to the student debt crisis. First, Reporter Kathryn Styer takes us to a free school called Barea College.

Deajah Baskin: It was my mentor who brought it up to me and she told me that she had somebody who worked there, but when I found out like every student didn’t have to pay tuition I was like “yeah right…what school is gonna basically pay for every student to be able to get an education…like, that’s just that’s unheard of.”

And, we talk to Thomas Gokey from the Debt Collective about growing support for a student debt strike.

Thomas Gokey: And that next administration can and must cancel all student debt. And if they’re unwilling to do that, we need to force them to do that.

Salima Hamirani: To start our show, guest reporter Kathryn Styer Martinez takes us to San Francisco pre-pandemic, to understand why so many students are unable to afford school.

Aldane Walters: My name is Aldane Walters. I live in Richmond, California. I’m a junior at San Francisco State University.

Kathryn Styer Martinez: Aldane commutes an hour each way to school on BART. He’s an international student attending San Francisco State University. And because of that, he’s unable to take out federal loans or access most scholarships and grants. He pays almost double the tuition per term at SF State. The day before SF State ended in-person classes because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, I joined Aldane on his way to school.

Aldane Walters: I am a part of the BECA program, that’s the broadcasting and electronic communication arts, and my area of emphasis is TV production.

Kathryn Styer Martinez: Aldane knew that the best place to study would be the US. But coming to the US meant he would have to deal with the costly public higher education system.

Aldane Walters: So the question of paying tuition is, it’s very interesting because throughout my entire tertiary life, whether at SF state or before at Berkeley city college. Uh, it’s always been, I’d like to say the kindness of strangers, um, since I left Jamaica you know, it’s just been on faith and prayer and different people along the way..

Kathryn Styer Martinez: Aldane identifies as a Christian and is super active with his church. He’s received a lot of support from this community. His first two semesters at SF State were paid for by anonymous donors from his congregation. At the end of Aldane’s first semester, he found himself in a really tough spot.

Aldane Walters: So the semester actually ended, it was on Christmas Eve and I had made up my mind that, okay, if I couldn’t pay tuition that I had to go home. That’s just where the journey ended. But on Christmas Eve, I normally join a prayer call every morning with my church at 5:30 AM, that morning I joined the prayer call, but I fell asleep in the middle of it…usually I don’t hear my phone ringing when I’m like sleeping, but somehow I heard my phone ringing and I took the phone up.

Kathryn Styer Martinez: Aldane received a huge gift. Someone reached out to Charlotte, the leader of the call that morning, and offered to pay for Aldane’s fall tuition at SF State.

Aldane Walters: Somebody just randomly called up, one of the ladies in the prayer call and just gave me the $8000 for that first semester

Kathryn Styer Martinez: But a few weeks later, Aldane was back in the same boat.

Aldane Walters: This spring semester, I enrolled in classes, but SF State wanted the money before school started and I was like, uh, I don’t know about this, but I’m still gonna register. So I registered…

Kathryn Styer Martinez: SF State automatically dropped Aldane from all his classes because he wasn’t able to pay his entire tuition for the semester up front.

Aldane Walters: So I told, of course, my church family, people in my prayer circle, and they’re like, Oh, we’re going to pray with you. We’re going to email some people. But school started that Monday, I still did not have the money, and so I was like, I am still going. So I went online, I looked up the class I was supposed to do, and I went. I was like, they’re going to have to drag me out on my ear. But I am going.

Kathryn Styer Martinez: Then he got another call from Charlotte, the organizer from his church

Aldane Walters: Charlotte called me, she was like, hold on. And then she links somebody else into the call. And this person is like you went to school even though you didn’t know where it was coming from you did your part, you showed your faith and perseverance by going, and so I will pay all this $9,000 for you

Kathryn Styer Martinez: Aldane’s story is exceptional but the underlying causes are not. Higher education is expensive. And states across the country have increased the cost of public colleges to make up for reductions in state funding. And international students who come to the US to study, often have the hardest time paying for school. In other countries, such as Germany, Sweden, Brazil, Finland, Norway and Slovenia, public universities are tuition free.

Most policy papers written in the past three years agree, the rising cost of college tuition is a problem. A 2019 report by The Institute for Higher Education Policy says that, public colleges are becoming more expensive because state governments aren’t investing in them. AND Affordability and access problems are amplified when schools are located in expensive cities.

Suzanne Kahn: I’m Suzanne Khan, I’m the deputy director of education programs and the great democracy initiative at the Roosevelt Institute. Public higher education over the last 10 years has become so expensive. And you can really see that if you look at graphs, tuition has shot way up, because states in the wake of the Great Recession cut higher education budgets, they are still below what they were pre-2008 and so schools shifted those costs on to students. I think it is widely thought that higher education is a institution that advances equity, that helps with intergenerational mobility, and the problem that we are seeing at the moment is that as valuable as higher education is, now that it is so debt financed by individuals, it’s actually not doing some of those things that Americans think it should do. It’s not helping close the racial wealth gap, in fact, student debt is contributing to it.

At the same time, there’s increasing evidence that it’s also exacerbating racial and gender inequities. Black students and women are much more likely to take on debt to go to college and then they graduate into, um, a discriminatory job market and it takes much longer to pay back their debt as well.

Kathryn Styer Martinez: So we looked at the rising cost of higher education and its effects. What does the solution look like? What if, public universities were free to attend?

We’ve seen a lot of progressive candidates build policies around free college. But it’s not just a progressive idea. The Republican-led government of the state of Tennessee created the Tennessee Promise, a program that makes certain schools free to attend for Tennessee residents. This is because for every dollar that a state spends on higher education, they get a 3 to 4 dollar return on their investment. This can look like increased tax revenues and less reliance on social safety net programs.

Also, free college doesn’t necessarily mean that students won’t have to take out loans. In Sweden, where public university is tuition free, average student debt was almost 25,000 dollars because the cost of living is really high. Some colleges are addressing this issue by providing not only free education but free room and board, as well as a job. Berea College is a private, academically rigorous school, located in the state of Kentucky.

Deajah Baskin: My name is Deajah Baskin. I am an African-American woman. I am from Cincinnati, Ohio. And I am currently a student at Berea college. I major in child and family studies.

Kathryn Styer Martinez: Berea is special because the school uses what’s called a “first dollar” approach to financing. They don’t charge any tuition for all four years and they also provide housing, meals, and even set up students with an on-campus job for 10 hours a week. Any scholarships that the students earn, go into their pocket. The model is revolutionary in the US.

Deajah Baskin: So with me finding out about Berea, I honestly thought at first, that Berea was a scam. It was my mentor who brought it up to me and she told me that she had somebody who worked there. But when I found out like every student didn’t have to pay tuition, I was like, yeah right, what school is going to basically pay for every student to be able to get an education like that’s just, that’s unheard of.

So first off, what they do is they provide tuition. So, I don’t have to pay tuition at Berea. Everything is covered. My freshman year, I didn’t have to pay tuition or, I didn’t have to pay for a meal plan. I didn’t have to pay to stay there. Like my room and board. I didn’t have to pay for any of that.

And now pretty much all I pay is $200 each term. I think that with us all not really having to pay tuition. We have more time to kind of build connections with each other. Like we don’t have to find jobs off of campus. So that gives us a little bit of leeway for being able to become a part of extracurricular activities and be able to like, build connections with the other students. It gives us the opportunity to figure out who we are instead of figuring out like, how are we going to pay for school.

Kathryn Styer Martinez: Again, Suzanne Kahn.

Suzanne Kahn: I think we talk about higher education, like it’s a luxury good but if you actually look at the number of high school graduates who start college every year, the majority don’t finish. It’s understood to be necessary, to get a solid foothold in the, job market. And if that is the case, then it’s worth considering how to make it a more publicly accessible good.

Deajah Baskin: Most of my friends from high school have dropped out and a part of the reason that they have dropped out, it’s because they couldn’t afford school and they couldn’t balance having to work, go to class, do homework, and then still some way, try to have a life, you know, I feel for them because I feel like if I was in their position, I don’t really know if I would still be in school right now.

Kathryn Styer Martinez: Of the 44.7 million student loan borrowers, over a third owe 10 thousand dollars or less. People who took out student loans to pay for college but don’t finish often have small loan amounts. But they have a really hard time paying them back. In part because they don’t have a degree to help them earn higher wages.

Black and Latino students are more likely to pay for school using loans. They’re also more likely to earn less than their white peers. Student loans are one reason many black and Latino students struggle to create long term wealth. Which is often the reason people go to college in the first place. Here’s Suzanne again.

Suzanne Kahn: So I think that that means if we want the higher education system to serve as we think it should, we need to change how it’s working, so that it’s more accessible.

Kathryn Styer Martinez: But not everyone agrees on how to make college more accessible. Some want tuition free models starting with community colleges, others want a ‘college without debt’ model — which is slightly different than free college. While others argue for free colleges with a cap on income for students from wealthy families.

Deajah Baskin: If somebody’s parents are like CEOs of a company, right, and they can afford to pay that tuition and send their child to that school, then they should, if you can afford it. But most people, we can’t afford to pay that tuition, so I don’t feel like it’s right that you’re making people pay to get an education to be able to provide for their families, but they’re going to be in debt for the rest of their lives. It just doesn’t make sense. For somebody like me, I’m going to school to get a social work degree, I’m not going to school to make six figures.

Kathryn Styer Martinez: I asked Deajah about her plans after she graduates from Berea.

Deajah Baskin: I am thinking about going to grad school. I’m thinking about going to grad school for social work, for clinical social work. I obviously think about the cost first. Just because I’m going to be coming from a school where I don’t have to pay that much, so I didn’t have to take out loans like other undergraduate students had to do. They provide you with a job on campus. So I really didn’t have to go and like search for those jobs while I was still in school. So when thinking about grad school, it’s like, okay, how are you going to do all of that stuff and where do you find those things, because I didn’t really have to worry about that during undergrad.

Kathryn Styer Martinez: You were just listening to Aldane Walters and Deajah Baskin, talk about their experiences with higher education. Suzanne Kahn is the Deputy Direct of the Great Democracy Initiative and Education Program at the Roosevelt Institute in New York. And reporting from Oakland, I’m Kathryn Styer.

Salima: You were just listening to reporter Kathryn Styer Martinez and her piece on Free Schools. This is Making Contact. To hear past shows, subscribe to our podcast or get updates: visit And now, back to our show.

Welcome Back to Making Contact. So in the first half of the show reporter Kathryn Styer Martinez highlighted a free school called Berea college. And, many organizers argue that one day, all schools should be free. In the meantime, however, most Americans are saddled with massive amounts of debt. Student debt in the US is over 1.6 trillion dollars. And that amount surpasses all other forms of debt except mortgages. Organizers are trying to help the 44 million Americans holding student loans get out from under the burden of debt. And what they want is simple – they want it cancelled. The issue even found its way into the run up for the 2020 election. Here’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Now people are in their 30s and older that have taken on insurmountable amounts of debt because we have sold them an empty bill of goods. And what we need to do is make it right. And that is why we have to both make public colleges tuition free and forgive all student loan debt at the same time.

Salima: To understand more about student debt and how to fight it we talked with Thomas Gokey, from an organization called the Debt collective.

Thomas Gokey: We’re essentially a debtors union. We want to organize collective action to refuse unjust debts. And we define an unjust debt as any debt that you’re forced to take on in order to meet a basic need. Credit card debt, payday loans, housing debt, criminal justice debt, medical bills. We oppose all such debts.

Salima: You know the idea of a union is interesting b/c we don’t usually think of being in debt as a political identity, we think of it as a personal moral failure, right?

Thomas Gokey: Your personal debt is political. We didn’t end up in this situation because we made poor choices. We ended up in this situation because of how policies are designed, about how our society is structured.

The vast majority of us wind up in debt because we’ve been denied the means to live. If you look at the statistics, there is one famous chart in particular that shows worker productivity since World War Two. And it just goes up and up and up and up. We are producing more wealth than ever before. But then if you look at the amount of wages the take-home wages, those workers who are being so productive make it’s basically been flat since the late 1970s. So even though we’re producing more wealth, less of it is going into our pocket. And most of it is going to the one percent. And that wouldn’t be such a big deal if the cost of our basic necessities were also flat lining. But that’s not the case. Health care has been skyrocketing. Housing has been skyrocketing. The cost of a university education in the US has increased 11,000 percent since I was born. And so, we make up the difference by being forced into debt. There really isn’t another choice.

Salima: Have there been other attempts to collectivized people who are indebted because it’s such a big portion of the population and there just seems to be massive political potential there?

Thomas Gokey: Yes, there’s a very long history of debt resistance. I mean, going back as far as history is recorded, the word solidarity literally means having debt in common. Basically, saying we are all going to bail each other out. You know, if you read the historians, they’ll tell you that every major revolution in history, part of that revolution was seizing the records of debt and destroying those records, whether they were on clay tablets or now, I suppose they’d be in server farms and backup tapes. But in terms of recent history, in 2015, we organized a student debt strike among former for-profit university students. And that strike resulted in over a billion dollars’ worth of fraudulent student debt canceled. We’ve recently launched a national student debt strike. And I would encourage all of your listeners to go to to join the strike where we want to win full cancelation of all one point seven trillion dollars’ worth of student debt. And what has worked for us in the past is pairing a direct action like a strike with a legal mechanism that already exists that, if used, would just get rid of the debt. Most people don’t know this, but I want everybody to really internalize this idea that the secretary of education, with one signature, already has the legal authority to wipe out about 97 percent of student debt, because 97% is federal student debt and the secretary of education has that authority. So, every single day that you wake up with your federal student loans, it’s because Betsy Devos wants you in debt. And we might have a different secretary of education in a little more than a year. And that next administration can and must cancel all student debt. And if they’re unwilling to do that, we need to force them to do that. That’s where the direct action comes in and that’s why we need the strike.

Salima: So when you say you’re asking people to join a debt strike, what does that mean? Are you asking people to just stop paying?

Thomas Gokey: That is a very good question. It can be dangerous to default on your student loans as an individual and we are not encouraging people to essentially commit financial suicide. What we are recognizing is that every year a million people do default simply because they can’t pay. And if you’ve already defaulted and you’ve already taken the consequences, we want people to reframe that as being on strike.

In addition to that, even before the pandemic, over half of all people with federal student loans were already not making any payment month to month, many of them in ways that are completely safe, completely protect you, whether you’re on forbearance or a deferment or if you’re on one of the various income driven repayment plans where because of your income and your family size and some other factors, your monthly payment has already been lowered to zero dollars a month. Those are all completely safe ways to join the strike.

At the current moment, most federal student loans have been suspended through October 1st, and they might extend that suspension even further, which means that we have a real golden opportunity, a once in a lifetime opportunity to organize everybody to join a student debt strike where it is completely safe to do so. And if we get the power in numbers, we can never pay again. We can force this current administration or the next administration to cancel all student debt. You know, one of the things that we’ve always been told is that you have to pay your debts. The system doesn’t work if you don’t pay your debts. What we’re seeing with the pandemic is that that was never true. They can suspend these payments. And there’s all kinds of bad things happening in the universe right now. But none of them are caused by us not paying our student debt.

Thomas Gokey: We need to fully, publicly fund public universities. The additional amount it would take to make all two and four year public universities completely free to attend is roughly the amount of money that we spend to wage a racist war on drugs every single year. It’s not that we don’t have the money it’s that we don’t have the political power. And right now, in this crisis, universities are going to be hit very, very hard. They’re one of the first areas that is cut when austerity measures are taken. We’re already seeing CUNY openly discussing laying off 25 percent of their staff. One thing that most people don’t realize is that our public universities themselves are debt financed.

So, the University of California borrows billions of dollars from Wall Street just to run the university, and then they pay that money back with interest. And they negotiated a very low interest rate because they said we can always raise tuition if we need to pay back this debt. So, you know, the University of California is bleeding millions and millions of dollars every single month. A lot of dominoes are falling in a lot of directions and a lot of really big institutions are gonna be toppled. And we need to fight for not just free education, but a liberating education. And it’s going to be a real big fight. We have everything to play for. We have a lot that is very valuable that we could lose. But there’s also a lot that is very valuable that we could win.

Salima: So in response to what you just mentioned, I guess one of the arguments would be, well, if the University of California is borrowing billions of dollars off of the private market, how can the government fund public universities across the country? Do they have the money to do it?

Thomas Gokey: Yes, the federal government has the money to do that. It raises so many questions, right? Like the University of California receives most of its revenue from private sources. So in what sense can we really call it a public university? It would maybe be more accurate to say it’s a private university that receives a federal subsidy. The Federal Reserve has been buying and bailing out banks and corporations. But there was a question raised just within the last year: Why didn’t the Federal Reserve do the same thing with Puerto Rico? Why didn’t they do the same thing with Detroit? Why is it that they forced Detroit to take on severe austerity and cut people’s pensions and shut off people’s water when the Federal Reserve could have treated them the same way they treat a Wall Street bank and just buy the debt and destroy it? And within the last year, when this question was posed to the Federal Reserve chair, he said, oh, well, we don’t, we don’t think we have the authority to do that. Well, now that the pandemic has hit, the Federal Reserve has suddenly discovered they have had that authority all along and they’ve set up something that they’re now calling the municipal liquidity facility, which we in the debt collective have decided, if we ever form a band, we would name it the municipal liquidity facility. And it’s basically intended to buy up municipal debts. There is no reason why the government couldn’t buy up a university’s debt, write it down and then publicly fund the university instead of forcing it to borrow from Wall Street for its operating costs.

Salima: OK, Thomas, so why organize a strike? Why not just go through Congress or other established political avenues?

Thomas Gokey: If we wait for Congress, we’re gonna be waiting forever. There is pending legislation in Congress just recently introduced in the last year that would cancel all student debt. But no big structural change like this has ever happened from the top down. It’s gonna be from grassroots organizing, civil financial disobedience and direct action that forces this to happen. I mean, Betsy Devos and Joe Biden are not going to do this willingly. When we won that billion dollars worth of debt discharge, we had to drag the Obama administration kicking and screaming every single step of the way. And we’re still fighting for every single penny discharged. None of it has been given to us. We really had to struggle for it and we’re gonna have to struggle for the rest of it.

Salima: You were just listening to Thomas Gokey, an organizer with the Debt Collective, and as always we have more information on our website. And that does it for this edition of Making Contact.

And we want to hear from you! Join the conversation on Facebook — Our Twitter handle is Making_Contact and on Instagram we’re makingcontactradioproject.

The Making Contact Team includes:

Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson, Lisa Rudman, and Sonya Green. I’m Salima Hamirani. Thanks for listening to Making Contact!

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