Guest columnist Ian Rhodewalt: Student debt is haunting us

Ian Rhodewalt

Ian Rhodewalt CONTRIBUTED

By IAN RHODEWALT

Published: 10-17-2023 6:32 PM

With October upon us, Halloween decorations have started going up everywhere — spooky skeletons, ghoulish ghosts, and villainous vampires. This year, however, the start of this month sees a new form of dread spreading in communities across Massachusetts and across the country. While we have had a reprieve for more than three years, starting on Oct. 1, the U.S. Department of Education began collecting student debt repayments again from 44 million Americans.

This monstrous development arose from an agreement between President Joe Biden and now former Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy in June as part of the debt ceiling deal. Union workers in western Massachusetts affiliated with our labor federation have expressed high levels of financial anxiety related to their student debt, insecurity about where in their household budget this money would come from, and whether they would need to take on new jobs, as well as fears about making ends meet in the face of this reawakened financial burden.

One of the most frightful aspects of student debt — aside from the astronomical interest rates placed on the principal and the skyrocketing tuitions that previous generations did not face — is that a significant portion of what is taken out in student debt does not even benefit the borrowers.

The Campus Debt Reveal Project has shown that students at campuses across the commonwealth have to pay fees for campus debt service, that is, when the state was no longer willing to invest in higher education institutions, campuses borrowed on the open market to build new campus buildings. This debt has then been transferred on to students in the form of fees, a cost on top of tuition, room and board, housing, books, or other learning materials.

Students are shouldering the cost of new construction and deferred maintenance on building repairs that are rightfully the responsibility of the state, the actual owners of the campus. At UMass Amherst, for example, the average undergrad student has to pay around $4,000 a year in these fees. Profit-making institutions are extracting debt from students twice, once in the form of student loans, and again as campus debt. This is ghastly.

The Western Mass Area Labor Federation has been organizing for the past two years around this issue. Federation delegates unanimously passed a resolution in early 2022 calling for full student debt cancellation. We have called and written our congressional delegation, asking our representatives and senators to urge Biden to cancel all federally held student debt, we have rallied at courthouse steps and in front of congressional offices.

We continue to demand that our elected representatives, from Beacon Hill to Congress, join us in keeping the pressure on President Biden to exercise the power he has from the Higher Education Act of 1965 to cancel all student debt immediately by executive order. This is the same power that the president used when his administration provided relief of $9 billion for 125,000 borrowers recently.

In addition to fighting for this federal action on student debt, last year we won the Fair Share Amendment here in Massachusetts. The constitutional amendment ensures that the top earners in the state, those making more than $1 million annually, which is roughly $20,000 a week, pay their fair share of taxes. The first billion dollars of Fair Share revenue is now in this year’s state budget and half of that is dedicated to public education. Of that, $50 million is devoted to deferred maintenance on campuses.

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There is currently legislation at the State House — the Cherish Act and the Debt Free Future bill — that will continue to use Fair Share Amendment funds to make high quality public higher education available for all. Call and write your legislators to make sure that they support these. At the national level, President Biden needs to cancel all federally held student debt, and not play trick or treat with 44 million of us by turning back on the abominable, broken, unjust, and pointless student debt collection machine when he promised broad relief for all student borrowers.

If President Biden is still in the mood for making historic moves, as he did when he became the first sitting president to join a picket line with the UAW in Michigan last month, this would be an ideal opportunity.

Ian Rhodewalt is the field organizer for the Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation, a coalition of more than 60 public and private sector unions in the region.