Don’t Make ‘Occupy Wall Street’ All About Student Debt

Many of the "Occupy Wall Street" protesters have student debt problems, and they're making that a central issue of the protests, as this piece from Inside Higher Ed points out.

Individually, economically and societally, student loan debt is a huge concern. But the protesters face backlash if they make their cause more about their personal grievances than about banks, income inequality and the continued consolidation of power in the hands of the financial-political alliance.

From Libby A. Nelson's comprehensive article:

As student debt has become a focus of the Occupy movement, some wonder how it surpassed concerns about financial regulation, income inequality and other societal issues. While some Occupy protesters report debt levels that would previously have been considered reasonable — $25,000 or less — many carry larger amounts. Media reports focus on students with at least $50,000 in debt, and anecdotes of students with more than $90,000 in debt are not uncommon. Still, borrowers with such catastrophic debt are part of a “1 percent” — although not the 1 percent that is the movement’s target. Students who are in debt for more than $100,000 from an undergraduate degree are make up less than 0.5 percent of all borrowers, says Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success. “The people who are really protesting are pretty much the people who went to college and don’t have the life they expected to have right after college,” says Sandy Baum, a policy analyst who focuses on financial aid. “You have to sympathize with them, but they are not focused on the greatest of social ills. They’re focused on their circumstances right now.”

Student loan debt is not new. The issue has risen on the radar for a number of reasons. Two big ones: Debt is becoming more widespread as more low- and-middle-income students enroll in college; and students from all socioeconomic levels are having trouble finding good-paying jobs, and paying down their loans, once they leave college.

The problem requires multiple solutions. Colleges and universities have to do more to rein in costs. The recent consumer protections placed on private loans should be solidified. Students and families need more economical options for earning college credits and gaining post-high school training and education. There must be continued pressure for reform in the for-profit college sector, which enrolls only about 10 percent of undergraduate students but, in the latest figures available, accounted for nearly half the number of students who defaulted on their loans.

It would be great if the Occupy Wall Street protests speed along some of those reforms. By pushing their grievances too much, though, debt-burdened protestors risk a backlash. It is their signatures, after all, on the dotted line.

It bears saying that college, for most students, remains a vital investment. But policymakers and students and families themselves have to become a lot smarter about avoiding this debt trap.


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