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Students protest the rising costs of student loans for higher education. (Photo: Getty)

For the Student Debt Movement, JUBILEE is an Old Idea Made New

A growing movement is pressing for relief from this country’s oppressive and mounting burden of student debt. Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren addressed a gathering of millennials in Washington, organized by a group called Young Invincibles during a national day of advocacy around this issue. Last November, college students and citizen organizations rallied at more than 115 campuses across the country to protest student debt at the “Million Student March.”

Student debt has become a major political issue in this election year. Candidates are peppered by questions about what they will do about this growing crisis. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have both put forward college tuition plans.

Students are learning how far we have fallen since the 1960s, when most public universities were almost free. Tuition costs have been rising much faster than inflation for decades, states have cut their higher education budgets, and Pell grants cover an ever-decreasing percentage of tuition costs.

The Burden of Debt

Students are the primary activists behind this movement, because they know that student debt will leave them with a heavy load in the years to come. Most of today’s debt holders, however, are older. They are the several generations of people who have already had to mortgage their future to attend college.

There are now more than 42 million people struggling to pay student debt. The total owed is more than $1.3 trillion – roughly three times larger than the total national debt owed by Greece. And that debt is growing with every passing second, as this real-time student debt clock shows.

Eighty-six percent of this debt is held by the federal government. Although the whole society benefits from widespread college education, the burden of paying for this public good has been placed directly on individuals – a burden they carry for much of their working life, and sometime into their Social Security years.

Time for a Student Debt Jubilee

That’s why we have proposed a bold but simple solution to the student debt problem – to eliminate it altogether by declaring a “student debt jubilee” on the entire amount. At the same time, we must return to a system of tuition-free public college. This approach would liberate people of all ages to live their lives, get married, buy homes and invest in businesses that they can’t afford currently because of their heavy student-debt payments.

This idea may sound extreme, or even shocking, to some people. It shouldn’t. The concept of “jubilee” is not new. A quick look back at our history shows that it is a very old, very powerful, and surprisingly familiar idea. It is a key part of our Judeo-Christian heritage, and is woven deep into the fabric of our nation’s history.

A “jubilee”-like event takes place when society chooses to forgive debt for a large number of people, or decides to provide something at no cost that otherwise would have forced people into deep debt.

The words inscribed on the Liberty Bell – “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof” – are from the Book of Leviticus and refer to a Biblical “year of jubilee,” when the nation’s rulers forgave all debts.

Those jubilee years – proclaimed at roughly 49-year intervals for more than 4,000 years – were both moral and practical. It is immoral to place more debt on a people than they can reasonably handle. The jubilees were also economically productive, ensuring that “the 99 percent” of each era could once again manage their personal affairs and participate in commerce.

Scholars have noted that these “jubilee years” preserved social cohesion and prevented large groups of people from falling into poverty or oppression. By forgiving this debt, society was also preserving the production and consumption cycle of the economy. This prevented stagnation and the ultimate economic depression that would otherwise follow.

The principle holds true today, as it did in ancient times. As we have seen, young people are being forced to hold off on buying houses and cars, and even starting families.

Jubilee: An American Tradition

There have been many “jubilee”-like events in American history. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawed both slavery and indentured servitude, forbidding a form of voluntarily contracted debt (indentured servitude) as well as the moral horror of keeping human beings as other people’s property.

When American states moved to ban usury, they were declaring that certain levels of interest payment were morally unacceptable. They were also acting according to ethical principles laid down in the Old Testament, Hammurabi’s law, the Roman “Code of Justinian,” and the rule of Charlemagne.

From almost the beginning of our nation, the bankruptcy laws provided protection and forgiveness from both personal and professional overburdening. In later times, however, exceptions have been carved out of bankruptcy protection, most notably for student debt.

When the federal government created “land grant colleges” under the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, many states opted to charge little or no tuition. Public resources were made available to students at no charge.

On a smaller community scale, local libraries often institute their own form of jubilee when they declare amnesty on unpaid fines. State amnesties on traffic tickets, like the one recently enacted in California, also have a jubilee-like quality.

The most powerful jubilee in modern history, we would submit, occurred with the original GI Bill after World War II. In that powerful act, eight million veterans were given the funds for college education and millions more received financing for the purchase of homes. This act, akin to the Industrial Revolution in the breadth of its impact, resulted in the creation of the American middle class and spurred economic growth for decades.

That dedication to growth for all seems to have diminished. Today jubilee only seems to be available to the wealthy and powerful, with broad forms of corporate debt and tax forgiveness and surprisingly large corporate subsidies from the government. In fact, the profit from student debt payment helps the government pay for these large corporate subsidies, in a reverse Robin Hood syndrome that reeks with unfairness.

A Generation’s Challenge

No wonder young people are mobilizing around this issue. They know that student debt is harming their economic prospects. They understand that their future has been mortgaged to an indebtedness that was incurred for the sole purpose of receiving a higher education – something which many states in this country used to provide for free, and which is still available at essentially no cost in nations, among others, like Germany, Mexico, Norway and France.

When the “Million Student March” took place in November, the students’ demands included:

1) cancellation of all student debt,
2) tuition-free public college and
3) a $15 minimum wage for campus workers.

“The United States is the richest country in the world, yet students have to take on crippling debt in order to get a college education,” reads the manifesto on the movement’s website: “We need change, and change starts in the streets when the people demand it.”

We agree.

Most people know how dire the situation has become. We should also note that, when it comes to student debt forgiveness, history is on their side. For the 42 million Americans who hold this debt, and for the many more who will bear this burden in the future if nothing is done, jubilee is an idea whose time has come … once again.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Mary Green Swig

Mary Green Swig is a co-founder of Freedom To Prosper – a national organization formed to achieve full cancellation of student debt.  The activities of the organization stemmed from her work at the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University, where she was a fellow and senior fellow in 2014 and 2015.  She is also a member of the Leadership Council of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School and a member of the Advisory Board of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center.

Steven Swig

Steven Swig is a co-founder of Freedom To Prosper – a national organization formed to achieve full cancellation of student debt.  The activities of the organization stemmed from his work at the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University, where he was a fellow and senior fellow in 2014 and 2015.  He is co-founder and President Emeritus of Presidio Graduate School, which gives an MBA in Sustainable Management, a member of the Leadership Council of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School and a member of the Advisory Board of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center.

Roger Hickey

Roger Hickey is Co-Director of the Campaign for America’s Future. He was a leader of the campaign to stop the privatization of Social Security, and he is a founder and member of the steering committee of Health Care for America Now. In the late 1980s he and Jeff Faux created the Economic Policy Institute.

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