This week, the Student Loan Ranger is pleased to interview Robert Applebaum, the cofounder and executive director of StudentDebtCrisis.org. He previously founded ForgiveStudentLoanDebt.com.
His most recent SignOn.org petition in favor of H.R. 4170, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, generated more than one million signatures, and he was recently named one of the "Twelve Most Influential Forces in Higher Education for 2012" by the Huffington Post.
Before going to work full time on student debt issues, Rob served for five years as an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn and then spent five years in private practice. He is a 1998 graduate of the Fordham University School of Law.
1. When did you first become aware of the student debt issue? Ironically, it wasn't until after I authored the essay that sparked this accidental movement, "Forgive Student Loan Debt to Stimulate the Economy," in 2009. My intention was to highlight an alternative approach to economic stimulus, but after the essay went viral on Facebook, I became immersed in all things related to student loan debt.
2. What was the genesis of ForgiveStudentLoanDebt.com and why do you think it sparked such a positive response? The website was a way of escaping the Facebook bubble and making student debt a topic of national debate. I struck a nerve by talking openly about a topic that previously held a stigma of shame and embarrassment.
The over 36 million Americans buried under intractable student loan debt have largely remained silent about their plight. Millions of them came out of the shadows and, together, we formed a true grassroots movement.
3. Tell us about your new organization, StudentDebtCrisis.org. Why did you move on from ForgiveStudentLoanDebt.com when it was such a well-known and effective platform? I've wanted to re-brand ForgiveStudentLoanDebt.com to StudentDebtCrisis.org for a long time because I don't just support forgiveness, I support an "all of the above" strategy where anything that chips away at the status quo is a step in the right direction.
After becoming the first recipient of a $10,000 Opportunity Grant from SignOn.org and joining up with Backbone Campaign fellows Natalia Abrams and Kyle McCarthy, I had the resources, talent, and expertise to transition to a much more inclusive name for the movement.
4. You've made a transition from being an attorney to being an activist. What are some of the lessons you've learned in that process? Being an activist is significantly less lucrative than being an attorney. For four years, I've sunk my life's savings, 401(k), time, energy, and heart and soul into something I truly believe in. It probably wasn't the smartest move to make without a plan for supporting myself, but it's been significantly more fulfilling to me than the time I spent in private practice. I wouldn't change a thing.
5. What advice do you have for anyone concerned about the explosion of student loan debt in the United States? How can they take action and where should they focus their energy? For everyone, my advice is to get involved! Visit StudentDebtCrisis.org; sign up for our newsletters; follow us on Twitter; join us on Facebook. There's power in numbers, and we have a mailing list of over 1.18 million people.
We've brought the issue of student debt into the national conversation, but the only way we're going to keep the momentum building is by making a lot of noise.
6. Looking forward, what makes you the most optimistic and the most pessimistic about the possibility of dealing with the student debt crisis? On the pessimistic side, Congress can't seem to agree on anything. I'm not hopeful they can come together on this issue unless and until it becomes a major economic crisis, like the housing market crash, and they have no choice.
In the long run, I'm optimistic that change will come because we're on an unsustainable path. The $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt isn't a cap, it's a disturbing mile marker, and it's already a significant drag on our economy. Millions of Americans aren't buying houses or cars, they're not starting businesses, and they're putting off having families because of student loan debt.
I'm enthusiastic about common-sense legislation, such as the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, being re-introduced in the new Congress.
Finally, everyone should be hopeful because this issue is finally on the national radar and we won't allow it to fade away.