​Student Debt Cancellation on Campus

An executive order begins a virtuous cycle.
By Charlie Eaton

cancel on a chalk board

In 2021, when writing the conclusion of my book Bankers in the Ivory Tower, I did something dangerous. I made a prediction: “As mainstream pressure to cancel student debt expands, a virtuous cycle of student debt cancellation appears increasingly likely.” With President Joe Biden’s historic executive action to cancel student debt for forty-one million borrowers, the virtuous cycle is off and rolling.

The idea of the virtuous cycle is that cancelling debt for some people serves as the proof-of-concept that we can cancel debt for all people. While congressional obstacles have hamstrung free college proposals, getting debts canceled for current borrowers on your campus is one of the most urgent and effective actions academics can take today. When we cancel growing shares of current student debt, it will also become increasingly preposterous to ask future generations to borrow.

Although this virtuous cycle has advanced faster than I anticipated, faculty members need to unite and partner with staff, service providers, and students in campus campaigns to go the rest of the way to free ourselves, campus coworkers, and students from debt. This is in part because the Biden executive action requires most nonstudent campus community members to submit income declaration forms to receive debt cancellation. University employees can also submit even more burdensome paperwork to get their entire federal loan debt canceled under the expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program.

At the University of California, we’re calling our campaign to cancel every penny of student debt the #UCStudentDebtChallenge. We are part of a larger #CAChallenge to cancel student debt led by the Campaign for California Borrowers’ Rights.

As the other articles in this special issue of Academe have emphasized, campus activism is key to achieving equity and accountability in higher education. To help build this movement on your campus, a campus debt cancellation campaign can involve four important steps: 1) getting every campus constituency to cosponsor the campaign, including faculty senates, AAUP chapters, other faculty groups, staff and librarians, campus unions, student associations, alumni groups, and administrators; 2) working with the Student Borrower Protection Center (SBPC), the AAUP and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and unions that have campus affiliates to help campus borrowers complete the paperwork; 3) holding your administration accountable for assisting employees and students; and 4) building a list of everyone on campus who gets their debt cancelled.

Getting Every Campus Constituency to Cosponsor the Campaign

As the trailblazing Debt Collective activists say, “you are not a loan.” If we don’t talk to each other about our debts, it’s easy to forget that faculty members, staff, campus healthcare providers, undergraduates, graduate students, and even some administrators have student debt. There is no place in the United States where a larger proportion of people have educational debt than on a college campus. A little less than 20 percent of all $1.7 trillion in student debt from federal loans is held by people who are still enrolled in a degree program. Together, they owe more than $250 billion. We need to help them get their debts canceled before they leave their programs and scatter to the winds.

As Elizabeth Tandy Shermer highlights in her article for this special issue of Academe, the expansion of student debt was a federal policy decision, not the result of individuals with poor planning. US and state governments encouraged the expansion of student loan programs, often in collaboration with private lenders, as a primary method to fund higher education.

Campus employees all have an interest in mutually supporting each other for debt cancellation because employees of public and nonprofit private colleges and universities are eligible for PSLF after ten years of qualifying payments. Advocates have successfully pushed the Biden administration to offer a time-limited waiver counting almost all past loan payments since 2007 toward the ten-year requirement (to take advantage of this waiver, you must apply by October 31, 2022). Unlike Biden’s executive action, PSLF cancels every penny of a borrower’s outstanding debt.

A unified campaign to cancel debt might begin by asking Black faculty members, workers, and student organizations on campus if they already have efforts under way that you can support. As Davarian Baldwin emphasizes in an interview in this issue of Academe, Black community and civic organizations have been crucial leaders in the movement to hold higher education accountable and cancel debt.

Once you know the lay of the land, ask folks from every constituency to get involved—including your academic senate since many faculty members (especially younger ones) have student debt. Most undergraduate and graduate students are aware of how debt will shape their future lives. But these different constituencies may not yet know what they all have at stake in pursuing this common cause. You can let them know how much debt their members could get canceled and the extent to which they are all in the same boat. If they already know, they’ll probably be thrilled to collaborate.

Getting Help for Campus Borrowers

President Biden should make debt cancellation automatic, but his executive order requires an attestation of annual income for nonstudents with incomes below $125,000 for individuals or $250,000 for couples. For eight million current students, however, executive action cancellation will be automatic as recently filed FAFSA forms determine eligibility based on household income.

In addition, far too much paperwork is still required for PSLF. Fortunately, help is available from national organizations. Informational resources are available at https://forgivemystudentdebt.org. The AFT—of which all AAUP members are also members through the AAUP’s recent affiliation with the AFT—offers student debt clinics for individual members, and chapters can contact [email protected] to set up a special session. AAUP and AFT members are also entitled to a free account with Summer, a platform designed to streamline the application process for PSLF and to help borrowers get tailored advice from student loan experts.

Help is also available for campus workers who are not affiliated with the AAUP or the AFT. Many unions have programs to help their members get PSLF cancellation. The Student Borrower Protection Center also runs clinics to help public servants apply and is gearing up to help millions of borrowers get cancellation through any relevant executive orders. You can email Amy Czulada at [email protected] to request an SBPC clinic to kick off the campaign on your campus.

Holding Your Administration Accountable for Assisting Borrowers

Your administration should make it a priority to get every penny of debt cancelled for students, staff, and faculty members. It is in the administration’s interest! Why? Colleges are increasingly ranked by the US Department of Education’s College Scorecard on the amount of debt their students incur—and whether students repay or default on those debts. Institutions can also increase their competitiveness in comparison with for-profit employers by highlighting employees’ eligibility for debt cancellation under PSLF.

Because it’s in their interest, upper-level administrators should use campus email lists and various meetings to encourage everyone to apply for PSLF. Administrators shouldn’t just make it easy for employees to get their public-service employment certified; they should also include PSLF application and certification as part of new employee orientations and trainings for current employees, and faculty groups should encourage such institutional support.

At the University of California, our #UCStudentDebt campaign leaders and academic senate chairs joined our systemwide provost and vice president for human resources in emailing all 200,000 UC employees to encourage them to seek debt cancellation. Over five thousand UC employees registered to join our online town halls to launch the campaign on August 31, 2022.

Another easy way for your administration to support PSLF cancellation is to pay for the same Summer borrower assistance program that the AAUP and AFT provides to members. Coworkers on your campus who do not have access to Summer through their membership in a national union can purchase Summer’s service for fifty dollars a year. In addition to automating annual PSLF employment certification, Summer provides high-touch phone and digital support to help borrowers navigate the PSLF bureaucracy. But your coworkers shouldn’t have to pay for this service and are less likely to use it if they have to pay for it themselves. If your university pays for it, Summer offers a lower cost per borrower. Because Summer substantially increases borrowers’ likelihood of successful cancellation, an investment of a hundred dollars per borrower at your school could help people with even $100,000 in debt to become debt free.

You and the administration can keep track of how many students and employees you sign up to get debt cancelled and then take credit for it to help build the debt cancellation movement. Summer provides a dashboard and resources for tracking progress.

Building a List of Everyone Who Gets Their Debt Cancelled

Debt cancellation will impact the lives of forty million people and their families in the coming year. There are few moments when an issue related to college affordability and financial accountability affects so many people so significantly. As we help each other seize this moment, this is the ideal time to ask people who attend your clinics or events to share their contact information and to join the effort to make higher education free for everyone in the future.

Building your list of debt-cancellation beneficiaries and your campus connections will position you to accelerate the virtuous cycle of debt cancellation on your campus. You will strengthen a community to mobilize for full, automatic cancellation for anyone who is left out of existing mass cancellation opportunities. You will build a foundation for future budget activism and shared governance in campus financial decisions. In sum, you can remedy the injustices of student debt by making your college or university the kind of democratic, diverse, creative, and empowering community institution that it ought to be.

Charlie Eaton is associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced, where he cofounded the Higher Education, Race, and the Economy Lab. He is the author of Bankers in the Ivory Tower: The Troubling Rise of Financiers in US Higher Education.