Strikes, Walk Outs, & Other Old Answers To Today’s Higher Ed Problems

Higher education costs students more than ever, and yet somehow there aren’t funds available to pay professors, so more than ever universities rely on poorly paid, PT adjuncts. This is one of the many cul-de-sacs we’re stuck in as a nation: more and more young people go into debt, often debt they can never repay, in order to go to college; and at the same time more and more older, pedigreed people, who are often deep in debt themselves, can’t get properly paid teaching jobs at college.

Someone is profiting from this confusion. It’s just not immediately clear who.

As we saw yesterday, though, the adjuncts are fighting back, staging walk outs and trying in other ways to call attention to their plight. Students are fighting back too. As Monica Potts writes in TPM’s Slice, some are going on strike and refusing to make payments.

Potts is sympathetic to the idea but falls short of condoning it.

Born in 2012, Strike Debt’s first project, Rolling Jubilee, has bought medical and a small amount of educational debt cheaply on the secondary market, the way debt collectors do, and then, instead of collecting, forgave it. All told, they’ve forgiven $31,982,455.76. But that was always intended to be a short-term project, a bailout that would get the group attention. Their goal was to parlay that into something bigger, build a new movement that would involve people in political action.

“We thought debt was a galvanizing issue,” Larson says. The debt strike against Corinthian Colleges is the first official action of the Debt Collective, and it officially began this week when 15 graduates, including Suggs, announced their intention not to repay their loans.

Organizers hope the Corinthian students are the avant garde: “Our sights are set larger,” Larson says. “This a model for future strikes.”

Strike Debt is a critique of the American capitalist system that brought us here: “Most of us fall into debt because we are increasingly deprived of the means to acquire the basic necessities of life: education, health care, and housing,” reads its Principles of Solidarity. “Because we are forced to go into debt simply in order to live, we think it is right and moral to resist it.”

Potts recounts her own history with debt, some from an ill-advised credit card early on but mostly from her Master’s degree: “I’ve never stopped making payments; I will probably never actually pay them off. All told, I have more than $115,000 in debt. (I had to break out a calculator to arrive at that total, because I try never to think about it.) … In reality, many of us will never come close to paying off these debts.”

Nor do most collection agencies expect that we ever will. The system is built on the lenders’ understanding of, even acquiescence to, the fact that they probably won’t be repaid: “Most of these debts, the few thousand dollars here and there that we privately sweat over, are completely worthless to the companies that hold them. … Failure is built into the system — the markets thrive on our inabilities to pay our debts.”

Potts doesn’t overtly say that she still feels ethically obligated to try and pay, and that that’s where some of her hesitation to participate in a strike comes from. Maybe it’s between the lines, or maybe I’m reading it in. It does make sense, though, to try to pay for something you’ve bought, especially the item or experience is something you value. As long as you weren’t cheated in the initial stages of the transaction, it’s … you know, an honor thing.

But what if the multitudes of “delinquent” borrowers did band together, overlooking their differences, and refused, on principle, to keep playing this rigged game? Would you join them?

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