Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Do Occupy Protestors' Student Debt Demands Go Too Far?


"College degree: $18,000 loan debt, $5,000 in credit card debt," reads this post to the We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr page, whose title directly references the Occupy protests.

For all the disparities in the movement’s demands, on at least one issue, Occupy protestors seem to be of one voice:

Student debt levels are way too high — a belief Indiana’s high rate of student loan defaults and estimates of $1 trillion in nationwide student loan debt do little to contradict.

But on the New York Times‘ Economix blog, Columbia University professor Judith Scott-Clayton says the student debt horror stories surfacing from the Occupy community are the exception to the rule.

Indiana Public University Grads: Average Debt & Percentage of Grads With Debt
School Avg. Debt Grads w/ Debt
IUPUI $29,112 73%
IU-Bloomington $27,752 55%
IU-Northwest $27,356 74%
IU-East $27,069 78%
Purdue-Main Campus $26,360 52%
IU-South Bend $25,373 74%
Ball State $24,121 66%
IPFW $23,607 25%
IU-Kokomo $23,454 71%
Purdue-North Central $22,137 62%
Indiana State $22,124 66%
Purdue-Calumet $22,106 62%
IU-Southeast $21,456 66%

Scott-Clayton writes:

In some cases — like for the college graduate profiled in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education who has $100,000 in debt and uncertain job prospects — this is unarguably true. But such cases make for dramatic reading precisely because they are so rare…

Most of those with that much debt have graduate degrees; it is difficult to accumulate that much debt in an undergraduate program…

Only 0.1 percent of college entrants, and only 0.3 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients, accumulate more than $100,000 in undergraduate student debt. If you have more than $75,000 in undergraduate debt, you are the 1 percent – just not the 1 percent you might have been hoping for…

Even among recipients of bachelor’s degrees, 90 percent manage to graduate with less than $40,000 of debt. What happened to the other 10 percent is no particular mystery: they are less likely to come from wealthy families, but they attended pricier schools and paid for more years of tuition.

Data from the Project on Student Debt, funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, shows the average graduate from public universities in Indiana leaves school with between $21,000 and $30,000 of student debt.

Meanwhile, Occupy protestors are upping the ante.

A group called the Occupy Student Debt Campaign has launched an initiative to stop repayment on student debts. They’ve created an online pledge for people to commit to stop repaying their student loans — that is, if a total of 1 million other student “debtors” stop repaying too.

The theory of a ‘debtor’s strike’ might not necessarily create the “safety in numbers” the protests hope for, as the federal government will likely still cracking down hard on those who refuse to repay, writes Inside Higher Ed.

What do you think — is that a student debt strike a good idea? Or are the arguments that American students overburdened with debt a little overblown?


  • Hilary

    The notion that 6-figure debt is an exception to the rule seems absurdly beside the point, considering that most folks graduate with an average of nearly $28,000 from any private non-profit school, and tuition has gone up 400% since the 1980s in a way that enormously outpaces inflation or household income. considering the dismal job prospects today, $28,000 in debt upon graduation may seem like nothing for Scott-Clayton, but for most people it becomes an cruelly unmanageable sum.

    to put it in perspective, 41% of the 2005 cohort has faced default or delinquency already. this crisis seems hardly overblown.

    many other groups have waged/are waging admirable struggles against the mounting student debt crisis, yet tuition and interest rates have only risen. The notion of a debt strike threat, which is what I understand Occupy Student Debt to be, seems the post powerful and radical action proposed yet. I’m all for it.

  • m s

    This is an article by an arrogant professor at one of the most elitist private universities in the country, who tries to make the deeply indebted sound like elitists! The fact is that the university president of Columbia sits on federal bank boards and rakes in a million and a half a year. It’s a racket. I’m sure Scott-Clayton’s article pleased her boss.

    We need fully funded public education organized at the federal level. There is more than enough money if the 1% are sufficiently taxed, which would also enable a middle and lower class tax cut. And this is not even utopia: it’s just returning to 1950s style taxes on the rich.

    Banks need to get out of education completely. Their institutionalized chaotic greed has corrupted our intellectual infrastructure and indebted an entire education. That isn’t the way it’s done in Europe, China, or India, where public education is funded at all levels. Of course, education is a right and public good. But it is also a national investment, a matter of national interest, and even a matter of national security.

    Student debts also need to be cancelled immediately. It’s just another form of austerity that is collapsing demand and exacerbating the crisis. Everyone knows that real wages have been falling for decades, but now the banks soak up any wage gain through debt payments. We have to get past this idea that education is for “consumers” and in any case majors don’t matter in this age of mass unemployment.

    Those who paid should probably get a tax break for the ripoff. The banks have profited handsomely for decades and they should be taxed. The great majority who have taken debt in the last decade or so can barely afford a house, if they are lucky enough to have a job.

    We’ve headed into the double dip of a massive global depression. Politicians and bankers are way behind the curve. University administrators are stuck in the status quo. If this isn’t fixed soon, the US will start to look a lot like Greece or Egypt.

    • StateImpact Indiana

      Thanks for sharing your opinion.

      I’d challenge you on your notion that a tax on the top 1 percent would be enough to pay for public education for everyone. Even if the Obama administration’s revenue-increasing measures went into place — letting the Bush tax cuts expire, increases on capital gains taxes — the revenues would only be $636 billion over 10 years. Average that out over 10 years, (this is not accurate, but just illustrative) that would be $63 billion per year.

      Public education in 2002, by contrast, cost $289 billion per year.

  • liz

    You borrow money, you pay it back. Be accountable for the fact that you chose to borrow that money to invest in your future. Nobody forced you to go to an expensive school, take a long time to graduate, or select a degree with low prospects of getting a job with a sufficient salary. This is just like all the people who bought houses they couldn’t actually afford just because they were allowed to. Even if shady sales people “pushed” you into a product that you couldn’t afford, who’s responsible for your bad choice? All the tax payers who made the prudent choice of going to a school within their means? The ones who decided to major in nursing or accounting rather than philosophy or interior design? I would like nothing more than to go to cooking school but I know that the current high enrollment of students will create less jobs opportunities and therefore less chances to earn a salary sufficient to pay back the high tuition of a culinary degree. My careful conclusion was to stay in marketing. How about the banks? Those rich evil banks who, god forbid, want to make a profit in order to stay open and provide financial services to Americans? It really is greedy of them to loan you money and expect you to pay it back, but not at all greedy of you to want to just walk away from the problems you’ve created. Own up to your decisions, even the bad ones that have difficult repercussions. You’ll learn to make wise decisions in the future and stop thinking like a helpless and entitled brat.

    • StateImpact Indiana

      Hi Liz, appreciate your comment.

      Just to play devil’s advocate: Don’t you think we give people who “select degrees with low prospects of getting a job with a sufficient salary” a lot of mixed messages?

      It seems we tell a lot of people that it takes all kinds — plumbers, mechanics, doctors, nurses, anthropologists ( ), writers, entrepreneurs — in our economy… yet only a few of those “kinds” end up getting meaningful jobs. We’ve spent a generation telling students “you can be anything you want to be” instead of “you can be anything you want to be so long as money is no object to you.” Is it possible some of those who took out student loans decided to pursue the paths they did based on some false expectations and promises their society set up for them?

      I wrote last week about a higher forum for journalists I attended, and this was one of the things discussed on a panel — we’ve been doing a bad job setting expectations for graduates in fields without high demand for employment.

  • R. S.

    I don’t understand the editorializing in this article. It seems to affirm the professor’s argument that “student debt complaints are overblown.” And yet the data directly next to the article demonstrates that over half of students at almost every single Indiana campus other than IPFW have student debt, averaging about $25,000. $100,000 or $25,000, that still seems pretty awful to me. What’s going on?

    • StateImpact Indiana

      Thanks for the comment. I’d be happy to discuss what you perceive as “editorializing” in the post. Anything you’d particularly like to call out? What’s your beef / what are your beefs with words we chose?

      You highlighted one — “overblown.” I can see your point there. We used it the last paragraph, where we often try to reach out and encourage interaction from readers in our comments section. We want to be equitable and fair to all viewpoints. I’m open to arguments that we crossed that line with the use of this word.

  • lawskuldebtor

    I am a disabled Army veteran with both a master’s degree and a law degree, but am, and have been, woefully and chronically underemployed. I went to school at a time when my veterans’ benefits — 80s and early 90s — were insufficient to fund an education in any significant manner. I was ineligible for any other form of financial aid because my parents — from whom I had been long emancipated prior to my graduate education — refused on principle to provide their personal financial information necessary on the aid forms in order for me to qualify. After all, they weren’t providing for me and hadn’t for some years. They have since died after illnesses that left them penniless. I funded my law school education on loans, thinking, at the time, that financial projections I was provided by the ABA, my law school and others, gave me a reasonable expectation that I would be able to pay them back. I now know that I cannot and will never be able to do so, as I am in that 1 percent that the learned professor describes.

    In short, I believed in the “American way” of people rising from middle class to something better. While I didn’t attend top-tier universities, my schools (American U. and Catholic U.) would, I would like to think, be surprised and dismayed to learn that the educations they provided are of little value.

    Now, if Professor Scott-Clayton would like to offer me a position . . . . . .. or, better yet, knows of one that will permit me to repay my debt in full, which I should very much like to do, she should let me know where that job is.

    Otherwise, she should just shut up and let those of us who realize the situation is truly stacked against us attempt to fight it in our own way. We are otherwise powerless and have no voice.

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