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Wipe the Slate Clean

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Student debt is a real growing economic and moral crisis. The conventional debate over solutions to this crisis has been anemic. The boundaries have been clearly drawn and options restricted to tinkering with interest rates. We need solutions that actually address the principal of the loans and prevent a new student debt crisis from bubbling up again. For instance: a student debt jubilee and the restoration of education as a common good.

If that sounds utopian, ask a baby boomer who went to an in-state public college or university how much debt they went into to finance their education.

Today, after decades of cuts in state funding, debt-financed higher education is exacerbating the U.S.’s already extreme level of economic inequality. As it stands, students from low-income homes are regularly charged more than a third of their family’s annual earnings for a year of tuition at a public college. Extracting excessive interest to capitalize on the mortgaged futures of the 99 percent is repugnant, but Democrats’ efforts to lower rates will — at best — bring defaults under control, offering life support to a broken system in which all but the privileged few must incur crushing, life-altering debts to receive an education while loan servicers, speculators and administrators profit from their misery.

We can resuscitate our public university system and restore opportunity to millions, it’s simply a matter of priorities. For the money spent so far on the ten years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we could provide completely free public higher education at every single two- and four-year school in the country — for the next 52 years. For those already suffering under the burden of student debt, we call for a one-time jubilee — a mass cancellation of debts. Wiping the slate clean. Each generation that graduates into a lifetime of debt is a lost generation. Student debtors are less likely to start families, choose public service careers or be able to build their lives in ways that include more than just following a plan to repay loans. With a trillion dollars of student debt dragging down the economy as a whole, a jubilee is the only realistic solution for an economic turnaround. Jubilees work. Just ask Iceland, which offered a qualified jubilee on mortgages and rebounded from the mortgage crisis faster than any other country.

Until the conventional debate is opened up to include alternatives that genuinely reflect the needs of the 99 percent, we see collective resistance and refusal as the tactics most likely to succeed. Forty-three percent of Americans under 25 already have student debt, and debt burdens for those 60 and older are skyrocketing. Though what’s left of the white middle class has surely not been spared, the rate of Black and Latino students graduating with unmanageable debt burdens is around 20 percent higher than that of their white counterparts. Indebted women, LGBTQ and disabled folks who enter the workforce will also have a hard time keeping up with payments given the significant gap in wages they’ll encounter. Student debt is a tie that binds people from all corners of the 99 percent. It’s only a matter of time until we shake off the shackles of shame and isolation and realize our collective power.


*Correction Note: The original post erroneously stated that the money spent on the Iraq war from 2001 to 2013 would be enough to cover tuition expenses at public two- and four-year colleges for 58 years. The amount used in the original calculation also included the costs of the Afghanistan war ($3.10 trillion), and the resulting number of years of public education tuition expenses that would cover at current rates ($59.9 billion per year) is 52, not 58 years.


Strike Debt is building a movement of debt resistance and liberation based on principles of anti-oppression, autonomy, democratic decision making and direct action. Debt resistance can take many forms and Strike Debt is developing tactics, resources and frameworks for expanding the fight against the debt system while developing alternative systems of mutual aid for the common good. This post was written by members of the the collective for BillMoyers.com.

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  • MariaM
  • UpStateJohn

    Well, this idea would certainly make the nation stronger.

  • Michael Cheque

    This is really the only solution. Simply lowering the interest rate might make matters *even worse*, by increasing the amount of debt borrowers can take on and thus driving up the price of college even further! This is a problem that we simply can’t afford to pussyfoot around with half-measures. Strike Debt’s proposal is the only one presented here that actually solves the problem.

  • Alan

    I agree- This solution is the only one of those proposed here that will
    erase (if not solve) the problem. The actions the Strike Debt Campaign has taken to this point have been bank-friendly to my great surprise and disappointment, but I do hope that they will go forward fighting fiercely for exactly what is proposed here…wiping the slate.

    That said: The proposals offered up
    here are woefully incomplete.

    Having devoted myself to this
    problem since 2005(full time since 2008), my research (which has been
    validated by numerous journalists, and noted experts) has led me to
    conclude very strongly that in the current political environment, there
    is one clear solution that does actually fix (not erase) the problem:
    Returning, at a minimum, standard bankruptcy protections.

    It is actually the ONLY solution that both offers deserved, rational relief to
    borrowers AND corrects terminal flaws introduced into the higher
    education financing system years ago- flaws that have propogated and
    festered systemwide, and which are responsible for the unchecked
    inflation, horrible/absent oversight, high default rates, and other
    problems that now threaten the stability of the entire system.

    This documentary project is, no offense intended, woefully incomplete having
    neglected to include this solution among the candidates.

    A leaked Sallie Mae memo listed bankruptcy (and keeping it gone) as #2 on
    its list of corporate priorities. So to see this missing from this PBS
    production is very, very disappointing and a bit unsettling, frankly.

    I do hope that in the interests of the integrity of this production
    effort, and the public interest that the PAT staff is listening and
    might be open to including a 5th essay.

    Alan Collinge

  • Alan

    I agree. See my comment above.

  • Michael Cheque

    Yeah, the lack of bankruptcy protection is just shameful. But, if the Strike Debt plan is adopted, doesn’t that skirt most of the reason for needing bankruptcy protection?

  • Ted R

    As an educated population will serve all the nation, it should be FREE. As secondary education was a fought for free-dom at the beginning of the last century. I’m surprised we’re having the same argument. What would happen to the tax base, if everyone refused to pay for an education ? What happens to nations that charge for schooling? Less parents send their kids to school.
    END OF DEBATE. ( Reduce defence budget = Educate population)

  • Nigel

    I paid my student debt. Why shouldn’t you. I can’t afford to pay my debts as well as yours. Grow up!

  • Pam

    As college education has become necessary to get a job, it should be free or based on the financial resources of the family or student. I will be paying for my student loan after I retire on Social Security. If they take away the income sensitive option, I will be way below the poverty mark and unable to meet my basic needs of shelter and food.

  • Bev

    Nigel, I understand your frustration. When my husband paid off his student loan we opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate. I don’t know how old you are but the situation is much different than it used to be. The job market is bad. Corporations know this and are taking full advantage. Jobs today don’t pay enough to allow these kids to survive and pay off their debt. They are living with their parents, taking any job they can and sometimes working 2 or 3 jobs. Their college education doesn’t even apply to the jobs they are working because they will take anything. We will have a generation after this that won’t go to college because they see it is meaningless. I don’t know the solution, but I know that it needs to be addressed.

  • Pam

    Nigel, I hope you never have unexpected life events that derail your perfect idea of how life works. Maybe you are the one that is not fully mature yet. I happen to think if we all help each other we become better people. This article envisions a better way and that because you paid your loan already is not a very good reason not to try a better system.

  • underwater

    If I could find a job that would pay me enough to pay off the loan I could do that and would be happy to be rid of it, but the reality is that I’m not even able to pay the interest on the loan. Unexpected situations like single parenthood can derail a life plan and put a person into poverty, so now I’m not the only one suffering under the weight of the debt, now my children will suffer too. This has nothing to do with not being a grown up.

  • Guest

    Geez, Nigel, I don’t know – maybe because we can’t get jobs that pay what our schools claimed we’d be making so CANNOT pay the loans back – duh! I have a law degree from a top law school and an MBA from a well-known university, but I have never made anywhere near what these universities claimed I’d be making. You can scream and shout all you want, but guess what? If one can’t pay a debt back, then it’s not going to get paid back. It’s called a “false receivable” (I used to work in collections). Furthermore, bankruptcy protections for ALL student loans (including federal loans!) were available when I took my loans out, but Congress CHANGED the rules after the fact – hardly fair. Congress is either going to do the right thing and RESTORE ALL the bankruptcy protections that it stole from us, or we’ll figure another way to deal with the problem – leaving the country for example (I already have).

  • turtlemother

    excellent!!

  • turtlemother

    how about no interest on loans?

  • Mary Whisler Maxwell

    When I went to college, it was on a government-funded teacher’s scholarship. My parents paid for the dormitory. I was very fortunate, and didn’t even realize it, sorry to say. I think students should help to cover some of their own expense, because they really will put all their efforts into it, if they have to help pay for it. However… it has become an unusually large burden, and nobody should have that kind of debt unless they are guaranteed a job.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joan.frisinabowles Joan Frisina-Bowles

    This is usury, perpetrated on the public by the banks, colluding with an Educational Bureaucracy whose prime agenda is to make money… as is the banks. This is a debt-based monetary system, and until the system is reformed or changed or revamped, the problem will continue. The only ones who benefit from this system are the lenders. Prof Wolff had it right.. Capitalism hits the fan… and Stiglitz got it right.. too.. it’s usury.

  • Diane Koepke

    Forgive all student debt for those students who completed a 4-year college/university or 2-yr community college program and received an undergraduate degree or certificate of completion.

    Maybe include forgiveness for those who served in combat zones in the military even if they did not complete their programs.

    My thought is that those who go on for further degrees – masters, PhD’s or additional undergraduate degrees finance those.

    I do not know how this funding would compare with Wall Street bailouts.

    This forgiveness would go directly and immediately into our struggling economy – in addition to raising the morale/improving the the mental health of graduates and restoring some confidence/belief in our government.

    Thank you,

  • Drowning in debt

    Because I had breast cancer, major depression, and loss of job. How is that for starters?

  • http://studentloansherpa.com/ Michael@TheStudentLoanSherpa

    This would be nice for those of us with loans, but we are talking about spending over a trillion dollars to do this… is there any chance that could ever happen?

  • Shani

    Brink back bankruptcy protection for student loan debt!

  • ryan

    @guest. I owe 210,000 I would love to leave country. I don’t think I could handle it as I have depression and anxiety

  • ryan

    @Michael. Well the banks were bailed out for far more than a trillion. Freeing up a trillion dollars would do wonders for economy boost spending create jobs and produce revenue for state, local and federal gov.

  • Alan

    Yes, but after seeing the political reality on the ground in DC, I would say that debt erasure has absolutely zero chance of happening. So while it would be great, the most realistic solution currently is bankruptcy. So while I applaud and support efforts like this (assuming they don’t sell out and wind up pushing a lame repayment program like other forgiveness advocates have done), we have to be realistic and not neglect the bankruptcy agenda in favor of this agenda. That would be the absolute worst mistake the citizens could make.

    I just hope the Strike Debt people walk the talk, and fight for what they are calling for. Thus far their projects have played directly into the hands of the lending industry, judging from the saliva drooling from the mouths of the two collection industry reps who were stalking their event at Zuccotti park, and in view of the “rolling jubilee” project, which seeks to purchase delinquent debt from the loan holders at market value. These two strategies couldn’t serve the student loan industry better if Albert Lord himself had drawn them up!

  • Alan

    We’ve had this petition up for a couple of months. We have 5000 signatures, but we’re shooting for 20,000.

    http://www.causes.com/actions/1732300-return-full-free-and-fair-bankruptcy-protections-to-student-loans

    @MariaM: we should consolidate on the next petition if we’re saying the same thing! email me at justice@STUDENTLOANJUSTICE.ORG if interested-

  • Gordie

    Read Lawrence Lessig’s “Lesterland: The Corruption of Congress and How to End It”

    Kindle Price: $1.99 includes free wireless delivery via Amazon Whispernet

  • Gordie

    Public Banking — it already works in the United States and is catching on! 20 States are considering some form of state banking legislation. http://publicbankinginstitute.org

  • Gordie

    Read Lawrence Lessig’s “Lesterland: The Corruption of Congress and How to End It”

    Kindle Price: $1.99 includes free wireless delivery via Amazon Whispernet

  • Alice Peace Worker

    Do you really want me to answer this question.

    It is as everything else we have followed the money and not the purpose of education.

    The state university were set so student could attend cost free.

    We are around #25 in the world in education, but we should be #1 for the money spent.

    We need start back when is born.

    We should have a unemployment payments for mother for the first 18 months of life.

    Next, there should be nursery school, preschool, kindergarten. All this should be funded by fed, state and local gov.

    We need standard course of education. We have found the Montessori system is one the best.

    The school need small classes, teacher, teacher aid, teacher helper.

    I think the school should be set up with a new school year , new school hours.

    Jan, Feb, Mar

    April off

    May, Jun, Jul

    August off

    Sept Oct Nov

    for Thanksgiving to 1st of yr .

    Hours – 7 – Breakfast
    Lunch
    Recess , Morn & afternoon
    snack time
    Leave School – 5:30
    Start Latin, Spanish, French back in Nursery, songs, etc
    Art
    Music
    Choir/singing
    Gym class each day
    Math
    Grammar,
    Science,
    Geography,
    History,
    Reading
    Another things that when the children start Elementary, that they are separate into girls & boys school.

    Early education, nursery 2 – 3 yrs , preschool 3 – 4 yrs, kindergarten, 4 – 5 yrs.

    Elementary would be , 1st, 2nd, 3rd grades

    Middle School, 4th, 5th, 6s grades

    Jr High, 7th, 8th, 9th grades,

    Sr High, 10th, 11th, 12th grades.

    After Sr High there should be all kinds of trade school.

    Then every student would to attend universities free . Graduate students would be free if they want to go. But they would have to high grade average than before.

  • Dangle

    Organizing is the only way we can make a change happen. For those who believe in universal education and some faith in the current system. Here’s a petition: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/make-higher-education-universal-free/cZBHRxqP

  • Anonymous

    It’s a matter of what we value most in this society, in this country, even globally. Right now, it’s profit for the 1% over people’s human needs. Humanity over our addiction to war and our constant promotion of militarism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.m.morrison John Morrison

    The US has been losing colonial wars since Korea. This has amassed a huge millstone of debt by paying for those wars on the national credit-card and the ensuing interest that has grown like an uncontrolled snowball in an avalanche.

    The big boondoggle of the huge tax cuts for the wealthy have yielded no new jobs and yet another huge source of debt.

    We used the social security system to pay for a lot of this madness, and to mask the deficits caused by the gigantic tax cuts.

    Now the plutocrats come along, demanding yet more tax relief and want to yank the rug out from under the middle and professional classes who now pay the highest rates of taxation.

    We all know what needs to be done. The US needs to stop being the world cop. This is bankrupting us. Forget about “good guys” in today’s foreign policy. There aren’t any where we are bleeding our soldiers and our treasury.

    The second thing that needs to be done is to raise taxes on investment, which has been gaining apace and lower them on labor, which has been suffering.

    We need to elect a party that is willing to do this.

  • Nick A. Zukin

    “For the money spent so far
    on the ten years of war in Iraq, we could provide completely free
    public higher education at every single two and four year school in the
    country — for the next 58 years.” This is now going around as a meme, attributing the quote to Moyers himself. I hope Moyers does his research better. I’m not sure what datapoint you were pulling from the linked PDF, but it was obviously false.

    Just financial aid each year is well over $100 billion for higher ed. So in less than 10 years, the money would be gone. Secondly, the phrase “completely free” suggests that you’re not just giving financial aid to a limited number of students, but to all college students. But students spend over $500 billion on higher ed each year. That means you wouldn’t get more than 2 years of higher ed paid for.

    32 comments and no one even checked the facts?

  • Jody

    Since those wars started the USA government has spent 8.8 trillion on education. How does 3 trillion pay for college for every young person for 58 years? There are 32 million 18-24 year olds right now. At the low end 50k for college those 32 million equals 1.6 trillion. So, please show your math.

  • Eric

    “For the money spent so far on the war in Iraq” … The war ended 18 months ago. The U.S. military officially pulled out in late 2011.

  • duh

    are you high? very unreasonable

    1. 25th? out of what data did you pull this from. agreed we are slipping though.

    2. more unemployment payments? disagree we finance enough for people to live off the system

    3. there are just so many things i can go on about. state universities were a more affordable higher education choice than private. not intended to be free.

    4. girls and boys school? so… remember blacks and whites? disagree. your going backwards not forwards on that one.

    5. i agree for more smaller classes and more help but, at what cost? more taxes, more tax increases?

    it seems that the europe education is influencing you. we are no way comparable to other countries. other countries can do this because of how small their economy is, we however can not.

  • guestwithabrain

    We truly need to some how tell our government there is too much going on in our own country to be spending money outside the US is not how we intended out taxes to be spent we need to be spending this money and most of the “aid”, assistance or what ever they try to call it at home the amount of money our government is spending abroad is our money and to let our society suffer while handing our money to other government is scandalous.

  • ammyanne

    @Nigel (troll) – We Married very young (surprise pregnancy & Our separate countries proved problematic to child-rearing). Found out later that *HE was already 75,000 in debt (student loans & credit debt – he came from a very poor family & the credit cards were for clothing, gas, & car repairs) – that *HE is WE cos matrimony. We we verry young, & WE worked in fast food & we were both in school still. Then, parents to 2 kids then -we both couldn’t work soon after we began careers – he had an awful accident, and I was dx w/ MS. THAT WAS AT 150,000 IN JUST STUDENT DEBT (not including the MASTERS required to obtain, whilst working, in order to keep thè job thè B.A. helped get, nor the super-cheap mortgage, used car loan, bills, & expensive foods to accommodate our daughter’s coeliac’s disease). “Poverty fights” broke us up, & Disability pays 800/ mo. , each.
    Please tell me how You paid your education off in this exact situation? Oh, that wasn’t your situation?. Oh, so EFF OFF.

  • http://www.freshstartsolutions.com.au/bankruptcy-goldcoast/ Bankruptcy Gold Coast

    You don’t always walk away from all of your debts without having to repay anything when you file bankruptcy. Chapter 13 bankruptcy allows your creditors to collect a percentage of the amount you owe in a restructure agreement.