One of the biggest and least known problems of student debt is the sense of shame and isolation carried by the individual graduate. 

A gathering of students at an “Up From Debt” conference on Saturday at Southern Oregon University tried to reverse that by helping strapped students realize their sense of “personal failure” is not really personal — it’s the problem of a society that has chosen to disinvest in its future. 

So says Alex Budd, community organizer for Oregon Action of Jackson and Josephine Counties and leader in a seven-state movement to forge the “political will” among students to unify behind an affordable, accessible system of higher education. 

“Oregon has the sixth-lowest business tax in the nation,” says Budd, and while that may attract business here, “not having an educated work force is not going to attract business. The political will for change has to start with students and spread to society at large, as people see the implications of this 30 years from now — as they see affordable education is a powerful driver for a good economy.” 

Students at the gathering, also sponsored by Associated Students of SOU and the Oregon Student Association, were linked by teleconferencing to panels in other states and broke into small groups where they practiced speaking candidly about their debt, without the usual feelings of shame, failure and undeservingness. 

“I’ll have $150,000 in debt when I finish my master’s in social work,” said Andrea Anderson. “I've definitely felt the shame and isolation about it. I’m doing this Up From Debt program so others won't have to fall into this debt and can go out and make a difference in the world.” 

The group processes and political work of the organization, she notes, “have helped me to de-stigmatize this debt by sharing my story. It’s not an individual problem; it’s a societal problem and that’s what needs to change.” 

The solution? Participants said change must be sought on many fronts, including direct lobbying of legislators, which many had just done, and petitioning the White House for action in bringing lenders under control and eliminating complex, high-interest and so-called “predatory” loans. 

Ironically, said psychology sophomore Emily Pfeiffer, if students run up much debt or exhaust loans, they often can't get jobs or housing that would make life easier. 

“Yes, I felt the predatory loan thing all right, when I ran out of money,” says Pfeiffer. “I had to move to a more affordable room (on campus) but I was denied because I hadn't taken out the Parent-Plus loan (signed by both student and parent). I didn't want that debt. So I had to stay in my current housing and had to take out a $9,000 loan.” 

Pfeiffer said the isolation has hit hard, with classes from 10:30 to 5:30, two jobs from 5:30 to 8:30, then homework until midnight or 1 a.m. 

“I’m fortunate because my mom is below the poverty line and I can get grants,” she says, “otherwise I couldn't go to school.” 

Spanish/Political Science Junior Megan Mercier, who works three jobs, 30 hours a week, called the whole system “predatory,” noting she had to take out a loan to be able to find housing and buy food. 

“I most definitely have felt the shame and isolation,” says Mercier. “My mother took out a Parent Plus loan so I could live in the dorm. The first year cost $24,000 all totaled. So I was compelled to take a year off to get residency and it went in default. I feel education so far is a waste. When I come to an institution of higher learning and can’t afford it, I feel so undeserving.”

However, Mercier, with $36,000 debt half-way through college, sees the student loan crisis, not with a sense of helplessness, but “with so much passion about overcoming this issue. I felt a lot of support lobbying legislators, though they said they are limited by budgets and other priorities.” 

Over the past 20 years, student debt has increased more than 1,000 percent, says Budd, who has chosen to avoid debt and college altogether. Twenty years ago, he says, the state paid 80 percent of college and now the students pay 80 percent. 

“They all talk about how important higher education is,” he notes, “but they've shifted the burden of it to students. Debt is not an individual failing. It’s a problem of higher education being unaffordable. We're setting people up to fail.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.