ISS hosts debt activists prior to student debt resolution hearing Tuesday

By Chris Pullam

House Resolution 0620, a bill calling on Congress to restore consumer rights to people with educational debt, will receive a hearing at the Higher Education Committee during the General Assembly on Tuesday April 8. The bill, which came from the Illinois Student Senate, passed through the Illinois State Senate last November and must now pass through the House.

Unlike most other forms of debt, student loans do not have consumer protections such as bankruptcy rights, a statute of limitations on collections or the right to refinance. This means that the government can collect on student loan debt by garnishing wages, tax returns, social security benefits and disability benefits.

Although the bill is a non-binding resolution, passing the bill would serve as an acknowledgement that Illinois supports this reform.

Tony Fiorentino, Illinois Student Senator representing the College of Law, has lobbied for action on student loan reform in the past. He, along with other members of ISS, will testify in Springfield on behalf of the bill.

“We’re looking for the standard consumer protections that every other debtor, like people with credit card debt and gambling debt, takes for granted,” Fiorentino said. “In Illinois, for most consumer debt, after ten years debt collectors can’t enforce a collection action on that debt. It’s illegal, except for student debt. They can come after you for the rest of your life.”

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This semester, outside of lobbying HR 0620, ISS hopes to schedule a town hall meeting with Sen. Dick Durbin to inform him that students want to see action on this issue. Fiorentino believes that the bill’s success could send a strong message to Durbin, showing him that reform is needed on both the state and federal level.

In addition, ISS and University YMCA board members reached out to Strike Debt, a coalition of debt resisters that believe people should not go into debt for basic necessities such as education, health care and housing. While the coalition does not focus on student debt, it aims to design a new economy that fixes many of the same problems that ISS has lobbied against.

Thomas Gokey, a member of Strike Debt, spoke at the University YMCA Thursday and Friday about the morality of paying back federal and private loans. On Friday, he focused on the Rolling Jubilee, a project of Strike Debt, that buys debt for pennies on the dollar, but does so to keep it out of the hands of collectors. By purchasing debt from banks and refusing to collect payments, the Rolling Jubilee abolishes debt owed by private citizens.

When the project began, members hoped to raise $50,000 through donations in order to purchase $1 million dollars of debt. Rolling Jubilee surpassed this mark and has collected over $700,000 in donations, of which $400,000 has been used to purchase under $15 million in medical debt throughout the country.

While Rolling Jubilee has proven to be an effective method for abolishing debt, the project does not treat the underlying economic issue, according to Gokey. The Rolling Jubilee was designed to highlight the issue for the general public, but Strike Debt has larger plans.

During his presentation, Gokey spoke about the 2012 student strike in Quebec, where students protested against a proposal to increase tuition from $2,168 to $3,793 annually. Students and their supporters marched in what was called ‘casserole protests,’ which included banging pots and pans together, and succeeded in shutting down Montreal.

The 75 percent tuition hike was shelved as a result of the protests.

“We could let Congress do this for us and we will get tiny reforms around the edges,” Gokey said, “Or we could organize, make real sacrifices and solve the problems ourselves.”

This sentiment is shared by Fiorentino.

“What (reform) would take is for students to make their demands heard by their elected officials, but it’s not going to happen until people with this debt start making themselves heard,” he said.

The total of all tuition debt in the US hovers over $1 trillion, according to the Rolling Jubilee’s website, and it is a debt that cannot be paid.

Gokey, who joined Occupy Wall Street and Strike Debt after listening to his students at Syracuse University speak about their own student debt, is inspired by the dilemma that many college students face, pointing out that “because I had the audacity to try to get an education, other people will make money.”

According to Gokey, it would cost $12.4 billion annually to make all two- and four-year schools free for students. He argues that although the number sounds large, it is merely a “rounding error for government.”

After a recent audit conducted on itself, the Pentagon acknowledged that it wastes $70 billion annually. If Gokey’s calculations are correct, that money could cover tuition costs for American colleges for five years.

“It’s not that we’ve been living beyond our means,” Gokey said. “It’s that we’ve been denied the means in which to live our lives.”

There have been several attempts to reform the student loan system.

In Oregon, the proposed Pay It Forward Program would allow students to attend college tuition-free, but would require they pay 0.75 percent of their annual income per year of schooling for twenty to twenty-five years after graduation. According to Gokey, this policy would actually increase tuition by $7,000 depending on an individual’s income.

Gokey offered numerous examples of proposed reform, but argued that none of the proposals targeted the primary issue.

“You all (students) have your feet stuck in cement shoes and you’re being thrown out of a boat into a lake that is one hundred feet deep, and now Congress is coming along and saying ‘This is a travesty, from now on we will make sure that students are only drowned in lakes that are no more than ninety-five feet deep,’” Gokey said.

Paul Dolmon, a student representative on the University YMCA’s board of governors, was one of many people responsible for inviting Gokey to speak on campus. He believes that Gokey showed students a different side to the problems surrounding debt.

“We talk a lot about our national debt to other nations,” Dolmon said. “But I think what’s more important is our personal debt to each other, from individuals to businesses, and that doesn’t get as much attention as it should.”

Dolmon also mentioned that he has seen much more interest in the student debt issue than in past years.

Strike Debt and the Rolling Jubilee are vehicles to punch holes in the moral of paying debts, according to Gokey. The members of Strike Debt believe that a hierarchy of debt exists and that morality should play a larger role in setting that hierarchy than policy.

“Which debts do we really owe, and which debts don’t we owe? Which debts are just and should be paid, and which debts should be refused?” Gokey said.

Chris can be reached at [email protected].