What Occupy Wall Street Means for College Debt

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The Occupy Wall Street protest may turn out to be a seminal event in the lives of today’s college students. In many ways, it’s reminiscent of the campus protests of the 1960s. But it may also be responsible for creating a new type of activist.

According to an article by Cara Buckley in the New York Times:

Occupy protests rapidly sprouted at other campuses: hundreds nationwide currently have or had some sort of Occupy-related activity going on. Mirroring the broader movement, students have taken aim at widening income disparities and the cozy symbiosis between Washington and Wall Street. But the college occupiers have also embraced a panoply of causes, localizing and personalizing their protests in a way that has lent an immediacy and urgency to their outcries.

One of the most important of these outcries has to do with student debt.

There have been campus protests across the country for many years. But this appears to be the first widespread movement in which college students have a personal interest in ensuring change.

The original, iconic, 60s protests concentrated chiefly on the Vietnam War. There were many, many student critics during this period concerned with the inequalities of capitalism and the economy. But back then, and this made them an obvious target for criticism, students seemed to be concerned with the poor in some vague inner-city-and-Southeast-Asia sort of way. College was much cheaper then. That’s why the students were relatively privileged; their families had more money available. College students were concerned, but they weren’t struggling.

And that was, perhaps, its public relations problem. It’s hard for the educated to generate sympathy for the dispossessed if they themselves appear reasonably comfortable.

As cultural critic Laura Kipnis wrote in 2003:

So exiled have even basic questions of freedom become from the political vocabulary that they sound musty and ridiculous, and vulnerable to the ultimate badge of shame-‘That’s so 60’s!’-the entire decade having been mocked so effectively that social protest seems outlandish and ‘so last century,’ just another style excess like love beads and Nehru jackets. No, rebellion won’t pose a problem for this social order.

The capitalism and imperialism of the last century, after all, might have been unfair, but unfair to whom?

But maybe this perception of activism is changing. Today the average public college costs $8,244 a year to attend. The typical college graduate now faces $25,000 of student loan debt. This is not an accident; this is public policy.

For much of the 20th century student protests centered on “the system’s” role in perpetuating poverty and injustice on others. But today’s OWS protestors can quite convincingly argue that that specific financial policies of banks and the American university are making them poor.

That’s a pretty important distinction. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer