This article is part of a series on the tenth anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.
The current drive to cancel student debt owes a lot to Occupy Wall Street. The movement, especially its Occupy Student Debt offshoot, helped turn public frustration into innovative campaigns. Activists boldly demanded government investment in higher education, which Occupy recognized as a public good that must become affordable and accessible for everyone in the 99 percent.
Late payments and defaults had dogged federal student loans since Congress first experimented with them in the late 1950s. Yet students and parents didn’t really talk publicly about how burdensome those debts were until the 2000s. For decades, lawmakers prioritized lending to students over funding universities, through the complicated federal Guaranteed Student Loan program. It promised bankers repayment for the loans they made to students whom colleges and universities had deemed worthy of admission.
Congress didn’t mandate data be collected on the loans made and debts owed until 2008, when Barack Obama made student debt an issue in the Democratic Party primaries. The Illinois senator spoke about having just paid off his loans and pledged real change, but never advocated canceling debts or transforming higher education policies. Student debt was buried in a general election dominated by the economy, the Iraq War, and healthcare. It was also overlooked in the scramble to pass the Affordable Care Act. White House and congressional Democrats did end the Guaranteed Student Loan program through the March 2010 budget reconciliation process, which more famously enacted Obamacare. The president’s signing statement celebrated canceling guaranteed lending, calling it “a sweetheart deal . . . that essentially gave billions of dollars to banks.”
That legislation ensured that students and parents could borrow at least some of what they needed for college directly from the federal government rather than from banks, but it didn’t erase the debts already owed. It also didn’t put the major student lenders out of business. The Department of Education actually paid firms, like Navient, to service the money available through the Federal Direct Student Loan Program.
Eighteen months later, the Zuccotti Park encampment attracted many Americans angry about student debt, including those who had spoken out about the 2010 reforms. Alan Collinge, for example, drew mainstream media attention to the crisis with his website, Student Loan Justice, and described himself as a “sort of complaint box for the industry.” When he moved into Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011, he heard similar stories to the ones he’d been sharing online for years.
Speaking out about debt became an important part of Occupy as it grew to more than one encampment. Americans across the country showed up to debtors’ assemblies in Oakland and Chicago to share stories of struggling to repay what they owed for basic needs, like healthcare and education.
Encampments also sprang up on campuses, and alliances between students, faculty, and staff emerged to demand real change to college financing. The largest took place in California, where unions, faculty associations, and 10,000 students from community college, California State University, and University of California campuses participated in walkouts and sit-ins. The ReFund California coalition, a group linked to Occupy Wall Street, demanded Governor Jerry Brown endorse a state budget and a referendum to stop fee hikes and education cuts.
That measure, Proposition 30, passed but got far less attention than Strike Debt, a provocative renaming of the Occupy Student Debt Campaign. Its innovative Rolling Jubilee asked for small donations to buy lapsed credit for pennies on the dollar. Strike Debt primarily focused on buying up medical and student debt to draw attention to how lenders profited from public needs. The group purchased $14 million worth of delinquent loans for less than $400,000 by November 2013, freeing thousands from their debts.
One of Strike Debt’s goals was to build support for free public higher education. That agenda didn’t stand a chance in a Republican-controlled Congress, but it slowly reshaped Democratic Party politics. Obama may have admitted in 2008 that student loans had been a burden for him, but he never reimagined how to pay for higher education. Eight years later, in the 2016 primaries, Bernie Sanders promised free college to the thrill of many students and their parents. Hillary Clinton could not ignore such widespread enthusiasm, but she waited months to lay out reforms that didn’t come close to what Occupy or Sanders demanded.
Many of the candidates in the packed 2020 Democratic primaries toyed with small changes, like debt refinancing, new repayment plans, and additional public-sector forgiveness options. But a few pushed for more radical changes, including tuition-free community colleges, free public universities, and covering college costs for students from low-income families. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren even advocated canceling some, if not all, debts.
Occupy’s legacy can be seen today in demands for President Biden to cancel student debt and for Congress to pass a bill, the College for All Act, that would transform how public higher education is financed. So far the Department of Education has extended the moratorium on some federal student loans, canceled the debts racked up for some for-profit degree programs, and promised a report on whether or not the president can wipe out debts through an executive order. The White House also wanted free community colleges be a part of the massive infrastructure bill that Democrats hope to pass before the end of the month. That’s not as ambitious as the plans coming out of Occupy Wall Street’s debtors’ assemblies or innovative campaigns, like Rolling Jubilee, a decade ago. But Occupy still deserves credit for the ideas and the momentum that led us here, as we continue the fight for higher education for the 99 percent.
Elizabeth Tandy Shermer is an associate professor of history at Loyola University Chicago, where she teaches and writes about U.S. politics, business, labor, and education. Her most recent book is Indentured Students, a history of the student-loan industry.