Concern Grows Over Student Debt

Occupy Wall Street makes some bold demands, including forgiveness of student debt. It's not likely to happen, but there is growing concern that student debt is out of hand. Is the government doing all it can to keep debt problems at a minimum?

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In Manhattan's Zuccotti Park today, protesters announced the Occupy Student Debt campaign. Professor Andrew Ross of New York University called on a million borrowers to stop paying their student loans. The mission of the campaign?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...to give debtors a chance to act...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: ...to give debtors a chance to act...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...collectively...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: ...collectively...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...in an area of their lives...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: ...in an area of their lives...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...where they have been rendered entirely powerless.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: ...where they have been rendered entirely powerless.

BLOCK: As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the effort is part of a growing movement to ease the burden on students who say the grim economy makes it impossible to pay back their loans.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Professor Andrew Ross says Occupy Wall Streeters embrace the student debt campaign out of a sense of social justice.

ANDREW ROSS: Banks with huge debt are very easily bailed out by the federal government, but individuals who suffer in a long-term basis have been neglected.

ABRAMSON: You can hear the tales of beleaguered student debtors at many Occupy encampments, or you can listen online via YouTube or the student loan documentary called "Default."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DEFAULT")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They now say that I owe about $90,000, so it's tripled.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They can seize Social Security. They can seize tax refunds. They can garnish your wages.

ABRAMSON: The number of students with six-figure debt is actually very small, but the average debt is rising steadily to over $25,000 today. That kind of debt should be manageable if students can find a job, and many cannot. Justin Hamilton, spokesman for the Department of Education, says an organized default could simply steal opportunity from the next generation.

JUSTIN HAMILTON: Our ability to make money available for students is contingent on this program operating successfully, so, yes, it could potentially hurt future students.

ABRAMSON: The department now issues all of the government-backed student loans and has largely cut banks out of the equation. In fact, some of the complaints seem to focus on alleged mistreatment by banks who served as middlemen under a system that ended last year. The government says that shift has saved money, and the extra cash has gone into a big expansion of federal grants for students. Still, Robert Applebaum of forgivestudentloandebt.com says excusing these loans would serve a larger purpose: It would pump new money into the economy by freeing up students to do what they cannot do now.

ROBERT APPLEBAUM: They're not starting businesses. They're not starting families. They're not investing, and they're not innovating. They're not doing any of the economically stimulative things that we need all Americans to be doing right now.

ABRAMSON: Many question that, saying forgiveness would inject at most a few billion dollars into the economy and would accomplish little. But the call for reducing student debt and for more government spending on education has spread around the world. Students in Chile have succeeded in shutting down many universities there during months of protests - some violent. They're demanding no-interest or low-interest loans, as well as a massive increase of government support for higher education.

The government there has offered limited spending increases but not enough to stop the protests. In the U.S., most experts believe there's little chance the government would ever forgive student loans. They now add up to nearly a trillion dollars. Ongoing deficit negotiations in Congress have raised the prospect that student aid may, if anything, face further cuts. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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