The Best Way To Handle Student Debt Might Just Be By Working Together
“Organization is the only way we’ve seen debt consistently canceled.”
In the United States, handling student debt all alone seems to be, well, just a fact of life. And like so many other facts of life, it seems like everyone has an opinion about it — whether that’s people telling you you should just skip Starbucks and you’ll have those loans paid off in no time (LOL, no); that you should move back in with your parents to save money (absolutely not); or you should have studied something more “lucrative” in school (that’s not how this works). But what if we countered such outdated, unrealistic advice by instead thinking about financial advice in a different way?
According to a 2022 report by Lending Tree, America is nearly $1.75 trillion deep in student loan debt, with around 46 million borrowers shouldering the burden. Indigenous, Black, and Latinx students owe the highest monthly payments. Around 70% of students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree have racked up some kind of student debt before they ever even walk the stage, with an average debt of $39,351, which takes on average 20 years to pay off. Under the crushing weight of debt, millions of individuals across the country have had to postpone home ownership, delay new job opportunities, put off starting families, and more. Furthermore, the burden of debt also takes a toll on mental health, and contributes to long-term anxiety, stress, and feelings of shame.
With so many people still paying off their student loans, it’s increasingly clear this debt crisis isn’t 46 million individual failures — it’s a systemic failure. And if it’s a systemic failure, we need to talk about systemic solutions, not individual attempts to self-flagellate your way out of debt.
Braxton Brewington, 25, the press secretary for the Debt Collective, points to strength in numbers: The Debt Collective is a debtor’s union working to fight back against the predatory lending systems that lead millions of Americans into financial desperation each year. In this interview with Elite Daily, Brewington calls attention to how these confusing and exploitative systems are nearly impossible to navigate alone and why collective action is the key to achieving student debt cancellation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you first start getting involved in this kind of advocacy? What kind of work is the Debt Collective doing?
BB: Student loan debt has been an issue for decades. Personally, I was forced to take out tens of thousands of dollars to go to college, and that’s true for around 90% of Black students. Like, what other option is there if you can’t afford school on your own? I think that personal struggle is part of what keeps me motivated to do this sort of work. My two siblings, myself, and both of my parents have student loan debt, so this is an inescapable issue for my immediate household.
The Debt Collective is a union of debtors fighting for debt cancellation as well as economic transformation so people don't have to go into debt for public goods or even for their own incarceration. We help people erase their debts: We'll walk you through the paperwork to have your medical debt canceled, or if you're eligible for a public service loan forgiveness waiver, we'll help you with that. We also pressure lawmakers to meet our economic demands — Medicare for all, free college for all, housing for all — really big ideas that are very doable. Additionally, we raise awareness around debt, and perform acts of mutual aid by buying and erasing debt through our Rolling Jubilee program, which purchases and forgives debt on a secondary market of buyers and sellers. We let debtors know their debt is canceled, it’s a no-strings-attached gift, and they no longer owe this debt to anyone. Congratulations!
From an activist’s perspective, what advice do you have for college students dealing with student loan debt?
Join Debt Collective! Organization is the only way we’ve seen debt consistently canceled. We haven’t seen individual actions — calling and demanding something for yourself — that work to get debt canceled, not on any scale, large or small. What has been successful is collective action: a union of debtors pushing for debt cancellation in broad swaths, and adding this political pressure on the back end.
We estimate that as of 2022, we’ve achieved around $38 million in debt cancellation across types of debt. We also take credit for all student debt discharged through the Department of Education’s “borrower defense to repayment” provision since we found and popularized it, created the form, and had tens of thousands of Debt Collective members fill it out in 2014 and 2015. That's how we've gotten $4 billion dollars in cancellation now. So, I’m not saying join the Debt Collective ’cause we're a cool organization. This is just how we've seen success — through collective struggle and pushing back as a union.
I also think people should try to understand the political implications of what's going on. We always say student debtors are in the red, but they’re also in the dark. So much of the problem is that people are in debt, and they're also in shame because there's just so much stigma and shame around debt. We need to release that stigma.
One of the things that Debt Collective has done before is advise people on alternate routes to dealing with their student debt, like applying for debt forgiveness. How can people deal with their student debt, beyond just... paying it until you die?
The federal government doesn't need our payments to function. The economy is holding up just fine with student loan payments paused.
One way people could take a political stance through nonpayment is by finding a safe way to pay $0 a month. So that might mean: using an income-driven repayment plan, filling out a borrower defense to repayment application, filling out a public service loan forgiveness waiver, or filing to get your debt canceled. We still find hundreds of people who say, “I didn't know about this form to get my debt canceled.” We know folks who constantly re-enroll in school so they can defer their payments. There are safe ways you can avoid paying into your student debt.
How should Americans realistically be thinking of debt forgiveness policy?
When we understand that debtors have power, and that we can use our debt as motivational assets, that's when we start to realize that we can actually control this conversation. There are a lot of political reasons why debt forgiveness on a large scale is on the table — we're in a pandemic, there's 40-year record-high inflation, there’s major global conflict. This is such a huge crisis. Student debt was too small to be a political factor in the ’90s, and now here we are, nearly $2 trillion deep in student debt, more than credit card and medical debt combined. Collectively, that makes this moment very ripe for debt cancellation.
Individually, folks can reach out to their members of Congress, give them a phone call, send an email, and sign all the petitions we have. We're also having an April 4 event, where debtors are going to gather in Washington, D.C., en masse to make our voices heard and call for cancellation. We’ll be in coalition with Black organizations, anti-war organizations, women's organizations, and all these other union-based, labor-focused movements. It’s going to be a huge opportunity for people to make their voices heard.