(The Hill) – While many borrowers are preparing to make payments on their student loans when they restart in October, others are ignoring their accounts and going on what has been labeled a “student debt strike.”
A movement led by the student loan group Debt Collective, the “strike” is not as clear cut as it seems.
In contrast with the name, most borrowers will not undergo any financial harm when on “strike” nor do their demands indicate they want to go back to paying on student loans by striking a deal with the Education Department.
Instead, the movement, which has been around since 2015, is typically made up of borrowers who already have $0 monthly payments through an income-driven repayment plan or have already deferred on their loans. Since they are not paying anything to the government, the group has labeled these actions a “strike.”
And President Biden’s “on-ramp” repayment plan that allows borrowers to skip payments for a year without financial harm is the perfect venue for the group to try to grow their movement of borrowers who say they are “striking” against loans when they don’t make any payments.
Here is what to know about the student debt strike:
When did the movement begin?
The idea of a student debt strike started for Debt Collective began back in 2015.
It began with 15 people who went to Corinthian College, a school that was found to have defrauded its students.
“We were the ones who sort of found this clause in the Higher Education Act about borrower defense. That you know, then was just like a really obscure line that said you can have your debts canceled if you were defrauded,” Braxton Brewington, press secretary for Debt Collective, said. “And so we created our own form, and the 15 people who were going on debt strike filled it out and demanded debt cancellation.”
Brewington said the form then spread and thousands of people signed it to demand student debt cancellation. Last year, Vice President Kamala Harris announced all Corinthian borrowers would receive debt relief since they were defrauded by their school.
Since then, Debt Collective has called for numerous debt strikes, including every time the Biden administration said student loans would get turned back on.
Critics have said that the way the movement is structured is being incorrectly labeled as a strike.
“I think strike is just the wrong word. You know, a strike is when you demand something or your demands are met then you return to work. The demand is a cancellation. It’s not a strike,” Alan Collinge, founder of Student Loan Justice, said.
Who has participated in this movement?
For the most part, those who have participated in a debt strike have done so in a way that has not financially harmed them.
“It has been a combination of people who both at a financial place where they really can’t pay on their student loans and so they politicize their refusal to pay by going on strike in coordination with demanding student debt relief,” Brewington said.
Some borrowers went on strike after they worked out through their income-driven repayment plan that they would be paying $0 a month. Some were already in deferment and not paying on their loans so they characterized it as a strike.
“The last thing we want is for people to financially harm themselves. We were not encouraging people to, we’ve never encouraged them to default on student loans,” Brewington said. “And I think that’s maybe sometimes when people think.”
“It’s using the tools available to us to some creative and some less creative to find a way to keep money in your pocket to go towards your necessities, rather than going to the Department of Education,” he added.
Biden’s plan makes the debt strike easier
While the movement caught the attention of some borrowers in the past, Biden’s “on-ramp” repayment plan has made the pitch easier for individuals to join the cause.
Although payments are restarting in October, borrowers will not see financial consequences, aside from accruing interest, if they don’t pay on their loans until Oct. 2024.
“It’s actually never been easier to go on a student debt strike,” Brewington said.
“In many ways, it’s just literally refusing to pay for a lot of people that will probably be at least for a year. And then I think you can sort of bet on something happening because, you know, the alternative is the Biden administration going back to those sort of harsh consequences a month before the presidential election, which seems unlikely,” he added.
The end goal of the student debt strike is not to negotiate with the department but so that borrowers will never have to pay student loan debt again.
A small movement with criticisms
There are more than 45 million student loan borrowers in the U.S., with many never having heard of this type of strike or are uninterested in it.
However, Brewington says they’ve seen a couple of thousand people in the past sign up and that their end goal was not to get all borrowers on board.
“We don’t need 45 million people participating in the debt strike for it to be effective or to make a political statement,” Brewington said
However, other student loan advocates believe the call is ignoring the larger issues and plays into the hands of debt collectors.
“There’s kind of a semantic difference. But the other key difference here is it’s quite irresponsible to call for people who can pay to stop paying their loans. Because in the absence of bankruptcy protections, that only plays into the student debt collection industry’s hands,” Collinge added.