Sentenced to Debt
by Maria Jennings, Student Labor Action Project organizer
My name is Maria, and I am part of the 94% - the 94% of students that are forced to take on student loan debt in order to graduate from college. I am one of the thirty-six million people who have indebted themselves to the federal government and Sallie Mae.
I will graduate from my public university with around ten thousand dollars of debt, a number that could easily double or triple with interest rates. My parents are helping me as much as they can – even when my mother was forced to forego her own dream of returning to college, and my father forced to work more and more hours despite his declining health.
Many of my friends will graduate with numbers as high as seventy thousand or even a hundred thousand dollars. Many students have been forced to forego college completely. It’s not that my peers and I cannot afford college – it is that college has become simply unaffordable for the overwhelming majority of students.
It now costs more for a student to attend his local public university than it would for him to go to Harvard. While private institutions with sizable endowments have done much to defray the cost of attendance for students, a lack of public investment in higher education has resulted in tuition more than tripling at public universities in the last thirty years.
Federal financial aid has shifted from a grant-based system to more of a loan-based system. This year, national student loan debt surpassed one trillion dollars. Grants used to cover about 70% of tuition, but today it is only 34%, and the difference is being made up through both federal and private student loans.
From 1990 to 2010, state funding for public higher education fell 26.1 percent per full-time equivalent student, a major factor in rapidly rising tuition. As students, we are simply not getting the support from the state that we need to in order be able to afford to attend college, and more and more of us are being priced out of higher education.
It’s a rigged system for students – with adequate government funding, we could easily make it so that no one had to take out a single loan to attend college, but students are not being invested in. We’re being cut out of the budget and cut out of the economic future. How can I, when I graduate in debt and jobless, even fantasize of the idea of owning a house or a car when I don’t know if I will be able to make my next monthly payment? Graduates are forced to put off getting married and starting a family because they are chained to their debt.
This system is undermining the future middle class of America. We are graduating with mortgage-sized monthly payments, but with no homes, no guaranteed jobs, and no help. Corporations like Sallie Mae make enormous profits off our debt – enough to spend twenty-five million lobbying the federal government and an additional four million in donations to political campaigns and PACs.
The shift towards the privatization of the cost of higher education is a one of the major contributors to the United States falling behind other advanced nations in college attainment: the U.S. has the best educated older generation in the world, but among 25-34 year olds, we rank 10th. This number will continue to drop if changes aren’t made.
It is time for an investment in higher education and increased regulations on these lenders who take advantage of people trying to improve their lives through college. We’re young. We want to work, and we want jobs. We want to give back to the communities that helped to raise us. Right now, however, we are so heavily laden with our own massive debt that we can’t. We deserve a chance.
That’s why students are riding the busses to Newark, Delaware to the Sallie Mae shareholders meeting this Thursday. As clients of Sallie Mae, the biggest profiteer off student loan debt, we are demanding a meeting with the Sallie Mae board of directors. We need to make higher education work for the people who are receiving it, not from those who are making money off it. We will no longer be silenced by the interests of big business.