The Debt on My Shoulders

Department of Education Meeting: 5/9/2013

Only a few hours after arriving in Washington, DC, I sat with about 20 fellow organizers at a Thai restaurant. Engaging conversation spread over 2 long tables and the only reminder of the pressing issue that had brought students from 11 states together was a napkin being passed around to each person. One by one we wrote our initials and a dollar amount. The light hearted mood was interrupted once the napkin had made its way around and the figure totaled. $602,000. The announcement of our group’s collective student debt infected the room with sober reality.

Our group had gathered in Washington DC to meet with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to ask him to cut the Department of Education’s contract with Sallie Mae as a step in unweaving the corporate knots he has tangled our higher education system into. It was time he answers to those of us who shoulder the debt that is a direct result of his decisions while serving as Secretary of Education in the Obama administration. When we introduced ourselves in the meeting we announced our debt along with our names. The figures on the napkin came to life as each of us claimed those numbers out loud and as many of us shared the personal narrative behind the red ink that stains our future; evidence of a failed higher education system. When I said my number I saw Secretary Duncan’s eyebrows rise. I had reciting my number several times the night before in preparation for this meeting. I had frantically cried my number to my mother every time a new semester started and a new loan had to be taken out. The number I had placed on the napkin, the number I included in my introduction, had become so ingrained in my daily stress, that I had forgotten the shocking effect it could have, even on the Secretary of Education.

I began my undergraduate degree the same year Secretary Duncan took office. In his 5 year tenure student debt has surpassed one trillion dollars without any serious change in policy to help students avoid taking out unmanageable loans in pursuit of an education. Also in that time, Duncan has continued to privatize the federal loan process and now the Department of Education spends over $1 billion dollars a year contracting private companies to service federal loans. The largest contract is with Sallie Mae. Instead of using funds to bail out students, Duncan chooses to pay high profits to those aggressively, unethically, and often illegally, collecting on the debts that are destroying students’ futures.

In those same 5 years, while pursuing an undergraduate degree and now a law degree, I have become buried under $145,000 of student debt.

Our meeting with Secretary Duncan included several successes. We brought the concern that the current criteria used to evaluate servicing companies rewards the companies for pushing students into default and does not encourage them to enroll qualifying students into programs such as the Income Based Repayment Plan. As a result of financially incentivizing Sallie Mae for collecting on students in default, the company works towards student failure, instead of helping students succeed in paying off their debt. Duncan welcomed the feedback on the criteria and agreed to consult with us in determining the criteria used to evaluate future contracts. He requested that we communicate further with him on specific suggestions for revisions of the criteria.

Additionally, we demanded that the Department of Education institute a policy that stops funding organizations that have violated the law. We particularly mentioned the Cesar Chavez DC charter school, of which Sallie Mae CEO Albert Lord sits on the board. The Cesar Chaves School has recently violated the collective bargaining rights of workers when it illegally fired teachers who were trying to unionize. Duncan showed great concern and stated that he didn’t want the Department of Education funding projects that violated the law.

Our main and clearest demand still goes unmet. Duncan would not yet agree to cut the contract between the Department of Education and Sallie Mae. While he did agree to encourage Albert Lord to meet with us and he encouraged us to go to the shareholder meeting, this is not enough. Duncan heard through testimony at the meeting how Albert Lord treats students who come to Sallie Mae. Past actions have included riot police and K9 units.  Instead of speaking with students, Albert Lord has sent the police after them and had them arrested. I will be at that shareholder meeting and so will most of the students who spoke with Secretary Duncan. On May 30th, we will stand alongside hundreds of other student who are dedicated to fighting for our right to higher education even in the face of getting arrested and large amounts of security wielding batons and shields. The pressing question is: how many students will have to be pulled off in handcuffs before Secretary Duncan will be ready to stand up for students and cut the contract with Sallie Mae?


The group after the meeting at the department of education

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