NYC Debt Collective seeks to end student loan burdens

With national student debt at a record high, the New York City chapter of a national debtors’ union is seeking to cancel loan payments through legal action and community organizing.

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Kristian Burt

National student loan debt reached a record high in 2021, leaving millions of Americans struggling to pay back their debt. As January approaches and the pause on student loan payments reverses, NYC’s Debt Collective — the first national union of debtors — seeks to cancel the destructive debt cycle once and for all. (Photo by Kristian Burt)

By Kristian Burt, Contributing Writer

CAS sophomore Anthony Portillo was walking through Washington Square Park in September when he noticed a stand with the words “Biden, sign the executive order” emblazoned on a red background. The booth was promoting the New York City Debt Collective, an advocacy group led by debtors aiming to cancel all forms of debt through political lobbying and legal action.

“It made me feel better that there was a group trying to find a solution to student debt that is personal to me,” Portillo said. “It gave me hope.”

In early September, the group pushed for the Biden administration to start relieving $1.1 billion in student loans under the Borrower Defense to Repayment program, which was established to forgive debt from student loan borrowers defrauded by their schools.

“Individually, we are at the mercy of our creditors, but together with our combined power in the literal financial amount of our debts, we have a lot of power over our creditors in our financial system,” Braxton Brewington, the press secretary of the Debt Collective, told WSN. “A lot of what we do is around the notion of debt and the historical shame around debt, but it is totally incorrect that people who have debt did something wrong.” 

Over the past three decades, student loan debt has evolved into a national crisis as the student loan industry has expanded. In 1986, national federal student loans stood at about $10 billion. That figure has since jumped to around $1.7 trillion. Student loan debt now affects 45 million Americans. Solving the debt crisis was a contentious subject of debate among candidates during the 2020 presidential election.

The Biden administration has extended a pause on student loan payments until January 2022, but once the temporary reprieve is lifted, debtors will have to resume payments as usual. Brewington said the time is now to act against student debt.

“Don’t think the Biden administration even remotely understands how catastrophic it would be to turn student debt payments back on in February,” Brewington said. “$200 a month is enough to destroy people’s lives.”

CAS sophomore Mari Binstock said that while the cancellation of student debt will inevitably be a lengthy process, it is crucial that conversations should continue to be held on college campuses.

“NYU is associated with wealthy kids who dress nice and buy expensive stuff,” Binstock said. “That’s what people see at NYU, but that’s not the entirety of NYU. We should acknowledge the other side, and we should talk about it more.”

The university’s chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America is organizing a tuition strike for spring 2022 to demand that NYU alleviate the financial burdens students face by reducing the cost of attendance and increasing financial aid. Campbell Munn, a Gallatin junior and campaign coordinator for NYU YDSA, said that while the Debt Collective’s goal is to cancel debt after it has accumulated, YDSA wants to eliminate the need for students to take out large loans in the first place.

“The NYU tuition strike is on the other side of organizing against student debt,” Munn said. “All of us are undergraduate or master’s students right now. We’re fighting against the accumulation of debt.”

Regarding the steps that can be taken nationally to resolve the student debt crisis, Munn joined the Debt Collective, progressive politicians and city councils in calling on President Joe Biden to take immediate executive action to cancel student debt.

“Joe Biden could find all the power he needs to cancel federal student loans in a shiny new Bic pen,” Munn said. “The President is empowered to cancel federal student loans by executive action, and Joe Biden should take such action. All he needs to do is sign the documents.”

Contact Kristian Burt at [email protected]