Student loan debt is a defining issue for the Occupy Wall Street movement

There are many different people involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. The demands of the protesters are rarely consistent, even within a single city, let alone the entire nation. However, when speaking with the media, a lot of Occupiers repeatedly bring up one issue: student loan debt.

Debt from student loans is increasingly becoming as a generational issue. The Project on Student Debt has compiled some sobering data on the issue, including:

  • 67 percent of graduating seniors have some debt from their education.
  • This increases to 96 percent for for-profit universities and to 72 percent for private nonprofit organizations.
  • Over $23,000, or a 24 percent increase from $18,000 in 2004, was the average debt load for the class of 2008.
  • For-profit universities accounted for the greatest levels of debt, totaling $33,050, up 23% from the $26,850 number from 2004.
  • What’s most concerning is that students who get Pell Grants, a program created to help low-income students afford higher education, have average student debt that is over $2,000 greater than that of non-recipients.

Student loan debt is a significant, escalating financial issue. According to, the total amount of outstanding student debt in the US currently exceeds all credit card debt and is projected to reach $1 trillion this year. Furthermore, according to a College Board survey, over half of all students who attended for-profit universities had debt levels of $30,000 or more, compared to around one in four students who attended private nonprofit universities. Comparatively, just 13% of students who attended public colleges were in debt by the amount of $30,000.

Even without the rising levels of student loan debt, this is concerning. These are not the only issues that new graduates are dealing with, though. According to a 2011 New York Times story citing 2009 data, 22% of recent college graduates were not employed at all, and 22% were employed in occupations that did not require a college degree. Only 45% of humanities majors are employed in professions requiring a college degree, which is a particularly severe blow. The average yearly income of those 45 percent was $6,000 less than the national average for college grads working in fields requiring a college degree.

Not only is student loan debt increasing, but defaults are as well. The U.S. Department of Education reports that student loan defaults climbed from 7.0 percent to 8.8 percent in 2009. This occurred prior to the recession’s official peak. All other types of debt are not like student loan debt. A student who has student loan debt essentially has two choices: pay it off or pass away with it. Although it is legally conceivable, it is extremely uncommon to be able to discharge student loans in bankruptcy court. Student loan default carries serious repercussions. Those who default risk having their credit report cards tarnished, having their earnings garnished, and even having future educational loans denied to them.

Shattered expectations are less radicalizing than other things. A college degree has long been promoted in the United States as a way of achieving upward economic and social mobility, despite the fact that graduation cynicism is now all but cliché. No one has to be a fervent class warrior to see that recent college grads have been given a bad deal, regardless of motives. While some college majors, like those in education, health care, and agriculture, have low unemployment rates and others, like those in engineering, economics, and hard sciences, offer high immediate wages, for the most part, the job market for recent college graduates is extremely depressing indeed. Therefore, it is not unexpected that Americans, especially young people, have protested in the streets. Dreaming of a future that is better than the one their parents had gets harder and harder. There are also fewer options available besides living on the streets as the number of Americans entering poverty keeps rising.

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