By 2019, Bernie Sanders was once again running for the democratic nomination for President. In a development that seemed nothing short of miraculous, this time the Senator was not the only candidate that supported free higher education and mass debt relief. One day that spring, a headline in the New York Times left me in shock: “Elizabeth Warren’s Higher Education Plan: Cancel Student Debt and Eliminate Tuition.” Senator Warren, another candidate for the nomination, had announced that, if elected, she would eliminate up to $50,000 in debt for people with household incomes below $100,000. Higher earners would see a smaller portion of their loans written off. Warren also proposed to eliminate tuition at all two- and four-year public colleges. She explained that she would raise the estimated $2.75 trillion required to pay for the programs by taxing the wealthy and corporations.
An article in Vox noted how the Massachusetts Senator would make good on her commitment. “Warren’s plan,” the reporter wrote, “relies on a little-known provision of the 1965 Higher Education Act known as the ‘compromise and settlement’ authority [which] essentially gives the education secretary broad power to waive, release, or modify a borrower’s federal student loans.” Was this really happening? The Debt Collective had been calling attention to Compromise and Settlement for years. Back in 2015, we had asked Arne Duncan to use the authority to cancel Corinthian borrowers’ loans. Now, a top presidential candidate was proposing it as a way to eliminate or reduce student debts for millions of people.
Debt cancellation and free public college had officially become common sense demands. And a legal mechanism touted by activists was being named as a key part of winning them. Some journalists and policy experts immediately made the connection between Warren’s plan and years of activism and organizing all the way back to Zuccotti Park. In “How a Fringe Idea Went Mainstream” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Vimal Patel described the Occupy Student Debt Campaign’s 2011 launch as a trailblazing event. The piece featured an interview with Thomas Gokey. “Nine Years ago, during Occupy Wall Street,” Patel wrote:
Gokey stood in the New York City park with a ‘cap and gown’ made of a trash bag. Duct tape draped over him represented the chains of indebtedness, the six-figure student debt that he and his wife owed that dominated his life. He was joined in receiving a ‘diploma’ by fellow ‘graduates’ with names like ‘Owen Lots’ and ‘Penny Less.’ . . . ‘We were told we were crazy,’ Gokey says. ‘Serious higher-ed policy wonks told us [debt cancellation] was a laughable idea.’
Patel framed the Pledge of Refusal–as well as the silly skit that had accompanied its launch–as important events in the history of activism. Referring to our eight-year-old demand for mass loan cancellation, he wrote: “Some still think it’s crazy, but they’re not laughing anymore.” Patel also profiled Nathan Hornes, a member of the Corinthian Fifteen, whose debt had been cancelled in the waning days of the Obama administration. Hornes, who was 26 when the campaign began, commented on how long it had taken to win even a partial victory. “My 20s are gone,” he said.
Others made the same connection as Patel. In Marketwatch, Jillian Berman credited Occupy activists with advancing a policy agenda that had once been derided as unrealistic. Her article, “Elizabeth Warren’s Plan to Cancel Student Debt Has Its Origins in Occupy Wall Street,” described how the OSDC and the Corinthian campaign had laid the groundwork for Warren’s proposal. To connect the dots, Berman quoted Julie Margetta Morgan, a former advisor to the Senator. Morgan referred to the Debt Collective’s effort to persuade the government to implement the Defense to Repayment law as foundational to the policies now being proposed at the national level. “This process of trying to leverage existing provisions,” she said, “started to both show the flaws of the existing system and make people more comfortable with the argument that sometimes debt has to be just wiped away.” In other words, a policy advisor to a Senator who was now a presidential candidate had learned that “sometimes debt just has to be wiped away” by watching debt strikers in action.
Morgan wasn’t the only policy expert to take notice. After Senator Warren announced her plan, Marshall Steinbaum highlighted the role that everyday people had played in moving mass loan cancellation from the realm of the unspeakably radical into the arena of the banal and the prosaic. “It’s the borrowers and the activists who know better than anyone how student debt has affected their lives,” the economist wrote in Current Affairs, “not the experts sitting in [Washington] DC think tanks.”
Later, on Twitter, Steinbaum went further in assessing organizers’ gains. He noted that the idea of college as a path to upward mobility had been revealed as a “powerful meritocratic fiction” that should also be retracted by its professional class proponents. “I wonder when the economists who falsely predicted that increasing student debt would cause . . . higher earnings will apologize for getting things so wrong at such immense social cost,” he wrote. I recalled how Secretary Duncan had trotted out a version of that fiction back in 2015 while defending his agency from the criticism that it had failed to protect students. I did not think Duncan or any other professionals would be lining up to apologize.
While pleased that the Debt Collective’s work–and the impact of grassroots organizing more generally–was being recognized by scholars, my colleagues and I were disappointed in Warren’s debt relief plan. Cancelling $50,000 in loans for those with earnings below a certain amount was not a student debt jubilee by any definition. Many people owed more than $50,000, sometimes much more. More importantly, if higher education was a right and a public good, and if public college would be tuition free going forward (as Warren had proposed), then why should any borrower have to repay any amount? Why did a plan intended to undo decades of injustice in higher education have to be undermined by caveats and eligibility rules?
From the Debt Collective’s perspective, the most important aspect of Warren’s proposal was that it made a jubilee seem like a simpler and more fair solution. With a US Senator saying that some former students should have part of the boot lifted from their necks, the next question asked itself: why not just cancel it all?
That is exactly what Bernie Sanders proposed to do. Back in 2016, the Vermont Senator had been a lonely voice in support of free public college. During his second bid for the presidency, he went much further. On a sunny day in June of 2019, during a press conference held on the Senate lawn, he announced legislation to erase $1.7 trillion in outstanding student debt. He also committed to eliminating tuition and fees at all public two- and four-year colleges. Dubbed “College for All,” the bill would increase funding to Historically Black Colleges and Universities as well as tribal colleges.
Sanders wasn’t alone in proposing a sweeping repudiation of decades of debt peonage. A new generation of progressive lawmakers that included Representatives Ilhan Omar, Pramila Jayapal, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also signed on to the bill. Flanked by allies and supporters, Sanders gave a speech in which he committed to fighting to make sure the bill became law. “We will make a full and complete education a human right to which all of our people are entitled,” he announced. I could hardly believe my ears.
Sanders and his congressional colleagues recognized the role that debt strikers had played in making the College for All legislation a reality. In acknowledgement of the Debt Collective’s contribution, they invited Pam Hunt to speak at the unveiling of the legislation. When her turn at the lectern arrived, the long-time debt striker spoke about struggling with homelessness and enduring bouts of chemotherapy in her battle against cancer. She also described how several of her children were now drowning in student loans. Finally, Hunt emphasized that grassroots organizing had led to this moment. “I came to Washington DC in 2015 as one of the first debt strikers in US history,” she said. “Some of us have since won relief, although I haven’t. But I haven’t lost myself or my desire to fight.” To applause, Hunt vowed to help win passage of the legislation being introduced that day. “I am here to fight no matter how long it takes,” she said. I dared to hope that a real victory might be on the horizon.
Asserting that education was a public good, even from behind a lectern on the Senate lawn, would not be enough to make it a reality. Policy changes of any magnitude in favor of debtors would require institutional power. Getting Sanders into the Oval Office was a critical step. The Debt Collective decided to try to give the Senator a boost by alerting college faculty to the College for All legislation and urging them to support it. My colleagues Andrew Ross and Hannah Appel, both professors, began by asking their academic peers to sign a petition in support of College for All.
Convincing many academics to line up behind a Sanders-affiliated bill was a long shot. Polls showed that Senator Warren, a former Harvard Law Professor whose campaign emphasized her policy expertise, was the favored candidate among educated professionals. To help change minds, my colleagues and I began publishing articles and speaking at conferences. These were efforts that would not cost a lot but which might persuade more professors to reconsider. After all, some high-profile people with lots of letters behind their names had already announced their support for College for All.
I made two attempts to persuade academics. The first was an essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In “The Fight for Free College is Your Fight Too,” I described the Corinthian campaign and the years-long battle for debt relief that had largely been waged by low-income former for-profit college students. I lamented the fact that no faculty from traditional colleges had been present at the unveiling of the College for All legislation. “The fact is,” I wrote, “that most elite academics have been absent from the political fight for free college.” The reason, I suggested, was that many tenured professors benefitted from the current system and had thus failed to recognize that the struggle for debt relief and free education was their own.
My recommendation was that faculty, especially those at top institutions, collaborate on a national public relations campaign to explain “what education is and why providing everyone the opportunity to learn and grow–even if it means studying subjects maligned as ‘pointless’–is actually the point.” I did not expect that my article would be well received by most from that profession or that such a public relations campaign would ever materialize. By that point, though, putting the argument out into the world that faculty ought to join the fight on behalf of students past, present, and future felt like a worthy end in itself.
My second attempt was a talk I gave at a small conference at a public college in California. The event was attended by faculty from across the state, including several well-known scholars from highly regarded institutions. I had been invited to present on the Corinthian campaign, on the Debt Collective’s work overall, and on the potential of the College for All legislation.
I began by describing the history of debtor organizing as I had lived it from Occupy Wall Street to the Debt Collective. With images and text, I showed how early debtor activists had been treated with derision and disdain. Less than a decade later, though, strikers had won more than one billion dollars in relief. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that student debt can’t be cancelled,” I said, “because it’s already happened.” I emphasized that former for-profit college students, disproportionately black and brown, had set the stage for what could become a genuine transformation of higher education. “Today,” I said, “we actually have legislation in Congress that, if passed, would eliminate a $1.7 trillion burden and assure that future generations can access a college education tuition free.” Finally, I showed a video clip of Pam Hunt standing next to members of Congress introducing College for All. “Debt strikers are going to build power until we win,” Hunt had said. I ended my talk with a question for the audience: How can we, scholars and activists, work together to build the kind of power that Hunt is talking about?
That question was never directly addressed in the ensuing discussion. For that reason, it was hard to tell what anyone in the room thought about what I had said or if they had any opinions at all about debtor organizing. Instead, members of the audience began to make comments that slowly built towards a critique of the concept of universal rights. A graduate student questioned whether free higher education and debt relief were proposals worth supporting given the way public goods had been dispersed in the past. He said that rights, including the right to earn a degree, had historically been “weaponized” against marginal populations. As an example, the student cited the fact that farmworkers and domestic workers, disproportionately black, had been excluded from many of the benefits provided by the New Deal–legislation passed in the 1930s that subsidized the creation of the white middle class via the establishment of dozens of regulatory agencies and social relief programs including Social Security, unemployment insurance, and national jobs programs.
A scholar of Native American descent concurred. She explained that public benefits like free college had historically benefitted white men at the expense of indigenous people. She suggested that the demands being made by former for-profit college students were insufficiently informed by an understanding of how universal rights might perpetuate racist exclusion. “Absent a more radical restructuring of the economy,” she said, “I am not sure the free college demand is the right one.” Citing the fact that the US had been founded on the genocide of Native people, she continued, “your free college demand is steeped in our blood.” Many in the room nodded.
Another academic expressed similar doubts about College for All, especially if supporting the legislation meant endorsing Bernie Sanders. “Sanders needs to learn to speak the language of post-coloniality,” he insisted, referring to an academic discipline focused on the political condition of former colonies. A lawyer whose work included helping formerly incarcerated Californians enroll in college agreed. She questioned whether academics should be prioritizing debt relief and free education as political demands. “The people I work with are owed so much more than that,” she said. When one professor sitting next to her suggested that free college and loan cancellation might be considered “transitional demands” on the road to more expansive policies, the lawyer shook her head vigorously. “We need to center the needs of marginalized people now.”
I was familiar with the arguments being made and had expected to hear some of them at the event. It was true that there was something disingenuous, even repugnant, about calling for “free college” while sitting in an institution which had been built on stolen Native American land. It was also true that the New Deal had initially excluded many black workers, just as it was inarguable that those caught up in the nation’s unjust and racist prison system deserved “so much more” than a college education at public expense.
But I was perplexed. Did those in the room, most of whom had careers teaching and mentoring college students at the same universities whose genocidal roots they decried, support the concept of free higher education in general? Did they believe that erasing $1.7 trillion in student loans would be a good thing, perhaps even part of a broader social transformation of the kind they wanted to see? I assumed that the answer to those questions was yes. In that case, what were some concrete remedies and which strategies would they recommend for making progress? Few in the room seemed interested in those questions.
My disappointment was measured, though, because I knew that the views held by the particular group in attendance that day did not represent the whole academic profession. I was a sometime consumer of scholarly literature myself, and I had recently read an essay called “What Black Life Actually Looks Like.” In the piece, the political theorist Cedric Johnson had discussed the critique of public goods which had been on offer at the conference. Johnson wrote that denouncing universal rights as exclusionary had become something of a “popular fiction” on the Left–especially in academia. Many scholars, he said, claimed that the New Deal was racist because its benefits were not offered to sharecroppers, domestic workers, or to those in other occupations held disproportionately by black people.
One problem with this understanding, Johnson explained, is that the majority of people working in those fields in the 1930s were white. He described how the New Deal was negotiated by various national power blocs which managed to exert different forms of leverage over its final form. In the case of social security benefit, for example, the Farm Bureau, a massive business lobby, had refused to back the legislation unless Congress permitted landholders to avoid paying into the public benefits system. In other words, Congress excluded farmworkers from the New Deal to protect rich people’s property, not primarily because most farmworkers were black. “I believe that addressing the expressed needs and desires of working-class Americans need not forever be haunted by the alleged and real failings of the New Deal [or other] regimes of national policy-making,” Johnson concluded. His essay did not, of course, address every critical question that might be raised on the issues of public goods and universal rights. But his fine-grained account of the New Deal’s passage gave me an alternative framework for understanding how historically-contingent power dynamics shape political demands–and any resulting victories–in important ways.
Armed with an alternative understanding of public goods and universal rights, I did not take the comments made by my fellow conference attendees very seriously. Instead, I took them to mean that, if a debt jubilee was ever to be won, it would likely have to be done without the support of most college faculty, especially those from exclusive institutions where critiques of universal rights were encouraged and rewarded.
I was not the only one who had come away from the event with the impression that scholars would not be of much concrete assistance. Later that evening, at a bar where several conference participants had gathered, another professor introduced himself to me. He said that my presentation and the ensuing discussion had made him feel tense. “My political awakening was rooted in abolitionism and in Post-colonial Studies,” he said, referencing two of the academic disciplines that had been represented at the event. “But sitting in that room today and listening to some of my colleagues put on a performance of radicalism in a moment when it really wasn’t useful,” he continued, “makes me think that I would take a class reductionist over them any day.”
This was an admission that I doubted the scholar would have made if he hadn’t been a little bit drunk. The term “class reductionist” was almost always used as an invective against anyone who saw economic class as the central relationship of domination around which leftists should be organizing. Though, to my knowledge, I had never met a class reductionist, the insult could be damaging to one’s reputation in the relatively insular world of progressive activism. Used interchangeably with terms like “vulgar Marxism,” calling someone a “class reductionist” was tantamount to saying that the person was ignoring or downplaying racism. Strike Debt had been the target of a similar critique in the past. The professor at the bar, though, was using the term in a way that I had never heard before: to differentiate between a “useful” radicalism and something that was more like a way of talking.