A group of anti-debt campaigners pulled off a creative hoax on Monday by falsely announcing it had won a coveted prize offered by the nation's student "aid" industry with this innovative proposal: "end student debt for good by making higher education tuition free for all."
Debt Collective, which is a new debtors' union that formed as an offshoot of Strike Debt, created a fake Twitter handle, blog post, and image announcing the group's receipt of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators' Big Idea award.
— #NASFAA2015 (@NASFAA15) July 20, 2015
The announcements were released right in the middle of a New Orleans conference of the NASFAA, which says it represents "20,000 student financial assistance professionals at approximately 3,000 colleges, universities."
While Debt Collective's award announcement was fake, their proposal was completely real.
"You may be asking how we can afford to completely fund public education," said the organization in a blog post. "Our research shows that after stripping off the amount that the government already spends to subsidize higher education—including at predatory for-profit institutions—the total amount of new money necessary would be as little as $15 billion a year. Fifteen billion is a fraction of one percent of yearly government spending; it is merely a rounding error in the federal budget, less than the government currently spends on tax breaks for just 20 corporations."
Debt Collective's publicly available proposal, which was not formally submitted to the conference, declares: "Free higher education is possible. In fact, many countries around the world fund public universities, and college was low-cost or free in the United States for much of the 20th century."
"Our message is that there is this huge industry, with thousands at the conference and all talking about supposedly innovative solutions and student debt. But they are ignoring the most simple and affordable option: make college free."
—Ann Larson, Debt CollectiveThe Big Idea prize is advertised by NASFAA as "a game show-style event where financial aid administrators, researchers and other interested stakeholders will have the chance to present their innovative policy ideas to reform and improve federal student aid programs and policies." The conference itself is sponsored by numerous big banks and student loan companies.
NASFAA, which claims to advocate for "public policies that increase student access and success," was not amused by the trick. "NASFAA has not given any awards to the organization Debt Collective, despite its false claims on a phony Twitter account," NASFAA told Common Dreams over Twitter.
Ann Larson, a New York-based organizer with the Debt Collective, told Common Dreams that the spectacle was aimed at "countering the narrative" of the conference.
"The narrative is that they are coming up with innovative solutions and payment plans, allowing people who couldn't go to college to afford to do so," said Larson. "Our message is that there is this huge industry, with thousands at the conference and all talking about supposedly innovative solutions and student debt. But they are ignoring the most simple and affordable option: make college free. The fact that there is an entire industry built around ignoring that solution strikes us as astounding."