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Changing the Culture of Student Debt

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Occupy Wall Street may be an amorphous, platform-free movement. But as the protests that began in New York in September have spread across the United States, and the world, one clear issue of concern has emerged: student loan debt.

For over a year, I've been working on a foundation-funded project that hopes to change America's debt culture, especially among Millennials.

I've begun following the young people on "We Are the 99 Percent" Tumblr, and am taken by their use of handwritten signs with their personal stories. It's a stunning testament in its authenticity, and more powerful than any high-priced ad campaign conceived on Madison Avenue.

"I have $50,000 in student loan debt and my B.A. is useless,"
one wrote.

From another: "Graduated college: May 2010. Debt: $35,000. Jobs in US: None."

Some are resigned: "I am 38 years old. It will take me almost 30 years to pay off my student loans (in 2023)."

Others cry out: "I am 24 years old and am $90,000 in debt from getting a college education. Why are we being punished with debt for getting a higher education?"

The trends are converging into a perfect storm: rising college costs, an increasing need for access to higher education for low-income students, more borrowing and fewer entry-level jobs for new graduates.

The student debt issue is not going away. It's too pervasive, and it puts pressure on higher education to prove out that a college education pays off.

We live in curious times. Some of the things we've taken for granted for so long in American culture are being questioned, in particular the power of education to change a striver's lot. What we are witnessing is a re-organization of our belief system about what it takes to get ahead.

I feel fortunate to be living in these times... no matter how unsettling.

People are finding their issues and raising their voices.

In a democracy, that's a good thing. We can all believe in that, right?