Nothing to lose but your debt: What students can learn from labor organizers

Nothing to lose but your debt: What students can learn from labor organizers
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Imagine a college that raises tuition only to face a student strike that forces the college to back down. Why hasn’t this happened? Colleges push tuition up every year and student debt goes up with it. Until now student outrage has seldom led protest. Instead, students and their families look to the government for solutions unaware of their own power to affect change. If they look to the history of the labor movement in this country, they could see how to demand change, how to be activists and not just supplicants.

Until workers unified, they lacked the power to confront employers. Following decades of labor strife, President Roosevelt created the National Labor Relations board (NLRB) to recognize unions and oversee collective bargaining. Today, workers and employers in a broad range of industries sit down to negotiate wages, pensions and working conditions. Why not colleges and their constituencies of students and parents?

There has been an upsurge this past year in student protests over the environment and racism but not over the exorbitant price of college. Notwithstanding this, students have carried out tuition protests recently at Columbia, University of Chicago and SUNY. None have had much success. More impactful, graduate students have demanded better wages and work conditions as teaching fellows. They have won recognition for their unions from the NLRB and have joined national unions.

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It is past time for students, parents and graduates with debt to take matters into their own hands. They will need to earn the support other groups by showing the connection of their debt burden to issues of racism, housing and even the environment. They should not expect to be taken seriously at first by college administrators. The demand of Columbian strikers signed by over 4,000 students that Columbia “alleviate the economic burden on students by reducing the cost of attendance and increasing financial aid”, never received a hearing.

Too many college presidents behave as benign dictators unchecked by their trustees. They have built a wall of separation between students and the administration manned by a cadre of executive officers. Entering the college administration building nowadays feels like entering the corporate offices of GM or Citibank. Students don’t belong there.

The key thing is to gain a voice. Colleges will react to bad press. They must recruit a new class every year and bad news leads to empty seats. This gives protestors important leverage. Certainly, the press has not been kind to colleges, with coverage of the burden of student debt, admission scandals and sexual misconduct. Journalists are hungry to uncover collegiate transgressions.

Soon we may have comprehensive debt forgiveness and free college for public colleges. But once these are passed who will guard the door? Loans will still be prevalent. Fees inevitably will rise. States will balk at their contributions in bad economic times. The mounting costs will gain the attention of tax payers. This is why the government has a stake in empowering students and their parents. It should formally recognize the associations they form and make colleges negotiate with them.

If students and parents, remain silent the costs of higher education will jump again, forcing yet another restructuring. They must fight. They have nothing to lose but their debt.

Robert Hildreth is a former International Monetary Fund economist whose professional work involved restructuring South American debt and marketing sovereign debt loans. He founded the Hildreth Institute dedicated to restoring the promise of higher education.