“Why Is the Administration Deciding to Keep Punishing Our Students?”
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Rutgers University administrators rejected a proposal that would have wiped out as much as $5 million in student debt owed to the university—and students, alumni, and professors at the state university of New Jersey want to know why.
Last fall, the nonprofit group Rolling Jubilee offered Rutgers a donation if it would retire between $2 million and $5 million in student debts owed to the university. Many of these debts, typically accumulated because of unpaid fees, tuition, and penalties, amount to as little as a few hundred dollars, but graduating students and alumni who owe money to Rutgers can’t get diplomas or transcripts, and current students can be barred from registering for classes.
According to Rolling Jubilee, after months of hearing little to nothing from the university, the organization was informed in March that the Rutgers administration was flatly rejecting its offer.
“We’re stunned by this nonsensical decision,” said Todd Wolfson, general vice president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, the full-time faculty and graduate worker union that worked with Rolling Jubilee as it developed its proposal. “These debts have a real and often cruel impact on our students, and the university had a chance to lift that burden off tens of thousands of people—and be paid for it! Students and alumni are part of our ‘beloved community’; why is the administration deciding to keep punishing them?”
Experts at Rolling Jubilee say that small-scale student debts to higher education institutions are commonplace, but to recover the money, colleges and universities often sell the debts to collection agencies for pennies on the dollar or contract with debt collection agencies to recover overdue accounts.
Rolling Jubilee offered Rutgers a similar arrangement to those it has negotiated with other colleges and universities: a $50,000 donation to forgive at least $2 million in debts—likely as much or more than Rutgers would get for selling bundles of student debt to collection agencies or contracting with those agencies, the organization said.
But Rolling Jubilee ultimately received an email from a Rutgers administrator rejecting the proposal because it “would constitute an asset sale by the university,” the organization’s board secretary, filmmaker and writer Astra Taylor, said.
“By rejecting this offer for a jubilee, Rutgers administrators are showing us what their values are,” Taylor said. “They would rather be in the business of debt collection than education. Student debt is a policy failure, but it also gives administrators an enormous amount of social control over students and faculty alike. There is a reason Henry Ford wanted his workers to be indebted. Universities should be places for research and learning, but they have been turned into ivy-walled debt collectors.”
Wolfson noted that the rejection described forgiving student debts as an “asset sale.” “That speaks volumes about how the lawyers and accountants who run Rutgers view our students: as ‘assets’ to make money from,” he said.
Though the student debts to higher ed institutions are often modest amounts, the number of students affected are greater than many people would expect. Responding to an investigation by NJ.com, a Rutgers spokesperson acknowledged that over 5 percent of current students could be blocked from registering for classes because of “financial holds”—and 7,644 enrolled students and 20,391 former students are blocked from receiving transcripts because of debts.
Reet Starwind, a poet, 2018 graduate of Rutgers-Camden, and artistic director of the community organization WATU Moja, is one of those former students. Starwind unknowingly built up a $3,000 debt while studying abroad shortly before graduating. Making just $9,000 a year from a job at a local mall, he couldn’t pay what Rutgers demanded, and the university sent his debt to a law firm to collect. Starwind fears the block on official transcripts because of his debt could stop him from getting a job that would allow him to make payments to Rutgers.
“As someone who learned a bunch in my time at Rutgers-Camden, which has led me to become one of their more visible recent alumni, it’s disheartening to know that the cold calculations of their internal processes have left the problems faced by myself and many other students, past and present, invisible and without resolution,” Starwind said.
Rutgers’ decision to reject a proposal to retire student debt in return for a donation is all the more disappointing given the growing national support for lifting the debt burden off current and former students, said Rebecca Givan, the president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT.
Not only has Rolling Jubilee made similar arrangements, as recently as this spring, with other colleges and universities, Givan said, but many other institutions used the surge of pandemic assistance from federal and state governments in 2020 and 2021 to erase student debts.
In neighboring New York, for example, the City University of New York (CUNY) system last July announced the CUNY Comeback Program to eliminate up to $125 million in unpaid debt for some 50,000 students who attended CUNY and suffered financial hardships as a result of the pandemic.
Debt forgiveness is a strong trend at historically Black colleges and universities (HCBU). Also in July 2021, South Carolina State University, an HCBU, used COVID relief funds to erase $9.8 million worth of debt for 2,500 students. “That’s totally fitting,” Givan said. “Student loan debt generally is twice as high among African Americans, so erasing these debts is tangible progress toward racial justice.”
Givan said that Rutgers AAUP-AFT has joined the national campaign to urge President Joe Biden to cancel all federal student loan debt. “But there are tens of thousands of current and former Rutgers students who won’t be free of the shackle of debt unless our university does the right thing by them,” Givan said.
Todd Wolfson said that Rutgers is missing a golden opportunity. “We can’t understand why Rutgers would rather take money from law firms and debt collectors than from Rolling Jubilee,” Wolfson said. “I hope they reconsider, because this proposal is a great chance to serve our students, past and present. That’s foremost in our minds. I hope it’s foremost in the minds of the Rutgers administration.”
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