Loan refusal pledge faces mixed reactions from administration

Occupy Student Debt encourages debtors to stop paying off loans when petition reaches one million signatures

· December 7, 2011, 10:26 pm   ·  Updated December 11, 2011, 9:07 pm

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While Occupy Wall Street’s nationwide student loan refusal pledge has found support among a group of students and faculty, some Penn administrators oppose the plan.

The pledge — which launched Nov. 19 as a response to the ongoing student debt crisis, according to the Occupy Student Debt campaign’s website — proposes that debtors stop paying off their loans after the petition reaches one million signatures.

As of Wednesday, the nationwide pledge had received support from 2,369 debtors, 380 faculty members and 570 non-debtors.

Though the number of signatories from the Penn community was not available, some students and professors involved in OccupyPenn endorsed the pledge at a gathering outside Van Pelt Library on Nov. 30.

Despite its support among these individuals, Student Registration and Financial Services Associate Vice President Michelle Brown-Nevers wrote in an email that “there is a moral, as well as a legal, obligation to repay loans.” She added that “failing to pay one’s debts can lead to difficult consequences for the borrower.”

“Penn is concerned about growing levels of student debt … [and] continues to maintain its no-loan policy for eligible students in spite of [the] economic downturn,” she wrote. “For students who borrow, Penn’s student loan default rate has historically been, and remains, much lower than the national average.”

However, some students and faculty do not believe the University is doing enough to help debtors.

Sixteen faculty members in the state of Pennsylvania have already signed the pledge, and several of them work at Penn.
“Penn’s tuition is too high,” said English professor Ania Loomba, who has signed the pledge. “There is a lot of wasteful spending at the University.”

English professor Charles Bernstein, who supports the pledge, agreed that “the increase in cost of tuition affects the access to higher education unfairly to people with less money.”

“I’d prefer that students be there not because of their ability to pay, but because of their ability to learn,” Bernstein added.
Loans can be “debilitating” to students when they graduate, he said, adding that student debt is a cause of income inequality.

Student loans are now higher than credit card loans for the first time in American history, said Top Colleges Educational Consultant Steven Goodman, who received his master’s degree in education from the Graduate School of Education in 1989.

“The question here is what can be done to stem the growth of tuition costs,” Goodman said.

English graduate student Christopher Taylor said that, although he has no student loans, he signed the Non-Debtors Pledge of Support — a special part of the pledge that allows those who are not in debt to support their peers who are.

“Debt-fueled education” puts pressure on students to think of their education in economic terms rather than in academic ones, Taylor wrote in an email.

“The massive debt assumed by students forces them to relate to education [economically], as if it were a commodity,” he added. “Critical thought consequently suffers.”

One symptom of the burden of debt is “grade grubbing” and “grade inflation,” Taylor wrote. “From the first report card, students need to keep in mind that their GPAs will be on display for potential employers.”

Although he said he cannot predict if one million debtors will sign the pledge, he believes some have been conditioned to view “their assumption of tens of thousands of dollars of debt as a voluntary act.”

“Student debt is quite literally a form of bondage,” Taylor wrote.

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