A recent article related to student loan debt suicides written by C.Cryn Johannsen for the Huffington Post, left me speechless. The number of young people taking their lives because they can’t afford to repay their loans is not only devastating but is likely going to increase.
When you think about the large mobilization of Latino organizations and students in support of the Dream Act and to push for the extension of the 3.4% interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans that we’ve seen in the last few months, the silence around the Student Loan Forgiveness Act (H.R.4170), which was introduced by Representative Hansen Clarke of Michigan in the House of Representatives in March, is shocking. (Briefly, Mr. Clarke’s bill would create a “10-10 standard” for student loan forgiveness, which means that if you make payments equal to 10% of your discretionary income for 10 years, your remaining federal student loan debt would be forgiven. The bill caps interest rates on federal loans at 3.4%. It also allows borrowers whose educational loan debt exceeds their income to break free from the high interest rates of private loans by converting them into federal Direct Loans, and then enrolling those into the 10-10 program.)
I can’t help but wonder about the lack of engagement with a topic that deeply affects every single current and future college student. While many of us hope for a permanent solution to the Dreamers’ current situation, we can’t deny that theirs is an issue that affects a minority of Hispanic students. And, ironically, those undocumented students at risk of being deported are the ones who have demonstrated across the country, marched from San Francisco to Washington, and appeared in front of TV cameras to share their stories. With everything to lose, they are the ones who came together to fight for their rights and their beliefs. And I say ironically because, in a way, the DREAMers are outside of the system. They can’t get federal loans, subsidies or any other government benefits reserved for American citizens and legal residents; and still they came out and protested until their plea was heard. Until something, even if temporary, was done about it.
During the weeks leading to the vote in Congress to extend the 3.4% rate on Stafford loans (a rate that had only been in place since last July) for one more year we saw so much media coverage on the issue that you would’ve thought the decision would have huge impact on the $1 trillion college debt. But no, apparently only 3% of that debt comes from Stafford loans. Yet not only politicians, who were working the electorate, spent countless words on this topic, but also plenty of students and Hispanic organizations raised their voices about the unfairness of letting the temporary low-rate provision elapse.
My question is, why aren’t Hispanic students, organizations and leaders rallying for a college loan forgiveness plan – whether it is the H.R.4170 or another bill? Why aren’t students who have trouble finding a job in this economy and who have mortgaged their future on the promise that a college degree would offer them better opportunities screaming at the top of their lungs on the steps of Congress instead of thinking of ways to commit suicide, as many are doing? Why aren’t they demanding increased funding for the Pell grant or lower interest rates on other federal college loans when interest rates are at historic lows?
Why is it that Hispanic students are not organizing to fight for the same bailout benefits we gave to banks? For the right to discharge their loans in bankruptcy court? Why aren’t they demanding that tuition costs be reined in and asking for a complete revamping of the laws that regulate student loans and benefit predatory lenders?
There’s a movement called Occupy Graduation that’s been picking up steam across the country (and which I hope doesn’t fizzle as Occupy Wall Street seems to have). It’s a coalition of partners fighting to bring these issues to the front line. Why aren’t Hispanic students and organizations jumping on this bandwagon? Since a larger number of Hispanics than ever before are enrolling in college, this is a problem that affects this community as much, if not more, than all others. Why the apathy? What are we all waiting for?
Mariela Dabbah’s latest book Poder de Mujer will be out in English April 2013 by Penguin. She’s the founder and CEO of Latinos in College, a not-for-profit organization, and of the Red Shoe Movement, an initiative that invites women to wear red shoes to work on Tuesday to signal their support for other women’s careers.