Many college alumni in the US have lives thoroughly controlled by educational debt. Last month, President Biden announced a student loan relief of $10,000 to $20,000 for some borrowers who earn less than $125,000, along with a small package of reforms to the college loan borrowing and repayment system. This is the same system that over the last few decades has collectively led to more than $1 trillion in debt mainly for my generation.
Make no mistake, for those under age 50 who received higher education, student loans are top of mind. Under the mirage of the American dream and a product of cruel Reaganomics, the higher education industry has relied on false marketing. Millions of citizens and citizens-to-be have been forcibly tied to a vision that does not align with their own wishes but with the wishes of business and industry. Student loans, along with its debt relief, is how the rich control the rest. (Look up Roger A. Freeman’s remarks in 1970 about the dangers of “an educated proletariat”, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle under the title “Professor Sees Peril in Education.” https://twitter.com/lianafaye/status/1562680259668893698)
The relationship that the (government-backed) higher education industry has forged with the US public is abusive and based on coercive control. Coercive control is a pattern of threats, humiliation, and intimidation used to harm, punish, or frighten and to make a person dependent by taking advantage of them, regulating daily behavior, and restricting long-term dreams. This definition describes very well the experiences that Gen X, Gen Y (millennials), and Gen Z have had with student loan repayments:
“If you do not take out a loan and get a degree and a job, society will see you as …”
“If you do not pay back your loan, the debt collectors will take …”
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“Your priority is to pay back your loan, not taking care of yourself or family …”
“You could not pay back your loan because you are lazy …”
Abusive relationships involve financial dependency (you must take out a loan), psychological dependency (no one will hire you), and emotional dependency (you are useless without a degree).
Even using debt “forgiveness” instead of debt relief is itself a form of public gaslighting (lying despite evidence pointing otherwise). Why are we being forgiven for doing what we were told to do? This is why we in the younger generations roll our eyes when we hear the “back in my day …” argument for how we should behave today. We live under an American society that does not come with the same advantages and disadvantages as “back in the day”.
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Just like when abusive partners stop their attacks for a few days, the relief that Biden’s policy has brought is real for some, but it is insincere and temporary. Ending all student loan debt goes beyond the financial freedom needed from a process that costs more than the first decade of salary; it is freedom from the social humiliation and intimidation that comes with not completing a degree that is really meant to provide cultural pedigree.
Those who paid back their loans have not “made it” any more than those that did not because the coercive control was always there. And for many borrowers, the financial freedom from debt crosses with freedoms needed from sexism, racism, nativism, ableism, etc.
If student loan debt relief does not bring about the freedom my generation seeks, what does? Don’t just relieve the loans, cancel them entirely. Alongside, we need to establish that the standard of success is not being able to pay back loans, but not having loans at all.
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We need breathing space from the marketing-heavy higher education industry, we need solidarity between the classes who cannot store wealth and the classes who can. This also means that we need to believe in the worth of community colleges and trade schools welcoming those who know that affordable higher education is their human right. Underlying these goals is the radical self-affirmation: “I am worthy without a degree and just as worthy as those with a degree.”
Higher education has not made humans more humane when it has been based on exclusion. Student loans, along with the limited debt relief, are the basis of that exclusion knowing that women, people of color, low-income, migrants, and disabled groups are less likely to have the capacity to resist debt servitude.
I welcome responses as Your Turn letters to the editor from Cape and Islands residents who have been directly affected by the recent policy for student loan debt relief: have your financial worries been truly relieved or just delayed?
Murylo Batista is a resident of Mashpee, a Sturgis alumnus, and a public health researcher in violence prevention.
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This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Student loans are a result of societal pressure to go to college