Should College Be Free? These Protesters Think So
Yesterday morning, 50 students at Cooper Union in New York, took over their university president’s office. They promise to remain until he resigns.
The occupation is the latest battle in a war to keep Cooper Union free. Cooper Union is one of the only colleges in America that doesn’t charge tuition. But on April 23, Chairman of the Board Mark Epstein announced that, starting in 2014, the college would cost students $20,000 a year. That’s a 2 zillion percent increase. It was, according to protesters and students, a betrayal of the principles on which Cooper Union was built.
"Education should be as free as air or water," the school’s founder, industrialist Peter Cooper, once procliamed. Cooper was the most progressive of the robber barons, a simple-living abolitionist Unitarian who invented Jell-O. He founded his university to provide an education to cash-strapped geniuses of both sexes. He positioned it where Bowery meets Broadway, as a geographic nod to class transcendence—where the upper and lower classes collide.
Since 1859, Cooper Union has been free. Cooper’s original endowment is supplemented by donors, alumni, and, most crucially, rent from the land under the Chrysler Building, located 39 blocks away.
Growing up in New York, I viewed Cooper Union through the filter of legend. Because it was free, it took only the best.
My friend Zak Smith, a Cooper art graduate who went on to exhibit in the Whitney Biennial, told me via text: “The great schools in the US are all too often just places that make rich families richer. Cooper Union was the exception.” Smith comes from a working-class family, but thanks to a free education at Cooper, he landed a Yale scholarship for his master’s degree and later became a world-renowned contemporary painter. “Not anymore. If it wasn’t for Cooper, people like me wouldn’t get to be artists.”
Occupy’s Rolling Jubilee Wants to Give Americans Money for Nothing
Walking the streets of New York City this spring, you would have been hard-pressed not to come across posters promoting the Occupy Wall Street-led May Day general strike. “A day without the 99 percent,” is how it was billed. With the strike, the group was attempting to light a fire that might bring down capitalism and launch the US into an American Spring. However, Occupy’s rallying cry fell on deaf ears, as the rally had poor attendance and limited impact. Looking back, it seems like that was the moment that the pied pipers of political and economic discontent’s critical mass finally dissipated. The group’s momentum seemed to have run its course, and the fickle media’s attention turned to the sideshow that was the 2012 presidential election.
After May Day, Occupy had to find itself all over again. Call it an identity crisis. But in an organization as decentralized as OWS, where individual efforts and actions are constantly emerging as branches and nodes of a shape-shifting whole, identity is a fluid concept anyway. The post-May Day breakdown was a chance for rebirth—a function of Occupy Wall Street’s built-in eternal recurrence mechanism. It was in this ferment that Occupy forged its next project: Rolling Jubilee, a plan to buy anonymous medical debt, thus offering relief to Americans burdened by exorbitant healthcare costs.
“From the very beginning of Occupy Wall Street, the question of crippling debt that people are forced to carry has always been part of the agenda,” says Yates McKee, a member of Occupy’s Strike Debt team, which is leading the Rolling Jubilee project. “Student debt, mortgage debt, medical debt, and municipal debt—all of that has been a part of Occupy from the very beginning.”
Activists within Occupy Student Debt, an early sub-group of Occupy focused on the debt crisis, had the idea of using Occupy’s I Am The 99 Percent Tumblr to present real people who were debtors and break the silence around debt. It was a issue that was close to their hearts, as many of the original Occupy campers were debtors of all stripes.
As Yates explains it, Occupy Student Debt went on to create the Pledge of Refusal, which many Occupy participants signed. “It wasn’t about forgiveness,” Yates emphasizes. “It didn’t say, ‘Let’s come up with a piece of legislation that forgives our debt.’ Rather, it noted that going into debt is systematic. In order to live, you have to enter into this predatory debt. So the Pledge of Refusal was non-compliant with the debt system. It was similar to a debt strike.”
Originally, the debt strike concept gained a lot of traction within the Occupy movement, but people across the country weren’t ready for such an idea and conditions across the country couldn’t support a mass default. So in the post-May Day void, where Occupy’s idealism finally gave way to reality, they knew they had to take another approach to fighting debt. Luckily, the Occupy Student Debt movement still had a great deal of enthusiasm behind it, even after May Day.
“The only campaign that still had a lot of energy was the Occupy Student Debt campaign,” observes Yates. “So over the summer, we decided to have what we call ‘thematic assemblies,’ where in one assembly we talked about the environment, and in another assembly we talked about labor. And then we did one on debt. And we made sure to invite everyone from Occupy Student Debt, Occupy Universities, Free University, and Occupy Labor.”
The larger assembly then got together and discussed what would it mean to build a political movement around debt in all its forms and not just on certain types of debt in isolation, like student loans. This ultimately lead to the transformation of Occupy Student Debt into Strike Debt, the sub-group which now healms the Rolling Jubilee.
“One phrase we started to use was ‘Debt is the tie that binds the 99 percent’” says Yates. “There is something structural about the debt economy we’re forced to go into in our lives. And this was when we flipped the idea of a debt strike to Strike Debt. What would it mean to strike debt, to attack debt from all these different angles and metaphorically cross it out?”
Occupy describes the vast swaths of America’s debtors as “an invisible army of defaulters.” What if this invisible army were to come out of the shadows and become a political force? Out of this thought experiment came debt memes like “You are not alone” and ultimately the Rolling Jubilee program.
Jubilee, as laid out in the Bible’s book of Leviticus, was a time when debts were forgiven. Strike Debt appropriated the concept in a symbolic way and used it as the namesake for its first major project, in which a fund—financed by donations—buys debt.
How to Pay Your Student Loans Without Actually Paying Them
There are two rhetorical positions commonly adopted when addressing the topic of student loans, one held by those with robust monthly incomes, the other championed by magical thinkers whose earning powers border on the anemic. Try to guess which is which:
1) “You shouldn’t have gotten into so much debt in the first place if you didn’t have a responsible plan to pay it off. Quit complaining and get to work.”
2) “Student loans exploit children by luring them with the promise of non-existent careers into borrowing inconceivable sums. The system is broken; defaulting counts as civil disobedience.”
If you’re partial to the first of these arguments, then you should stop reading this immediately and go hang out in your bathtub full of gold-plated caviar (or whatever it is you people do), but if you’re listing towards the latter position, then it only stands to reason that you should get out of your student loan debt as quickly and painlessly as possible. And there are actually ways to do that. Check it out