As college campuses across the country re-open, students are more aware than ever that they are entering into some serious debt for an education. Nationally, student loan debt tops $1 trillion and crushing debt is bearing down on a young Americans in an unprecedented way. Activists like University of Illinois law student Tony Fiorentino are trying to do something about it. Fiorentino is spearheading a campaign to help students get the attention of legislators, which he hopes other schools will replicate. As a student senator and member of his school's newly formed student debt committee, Fiorentino will be calling for a campus-wide referendum on debt, to hear what his prestigious university’s 42,000 students have to say about the problem.
TAKEPART: Why did you form a student debt committee at your university?
FIORENTINO: Because as a law student I’m on the front lines of the student debt crisis. Law school tuition tends to be among the very highest and I can certainly attest to that. The sticker price for my education right now is about $41,000 a year… I’m a third-year. So, I realized I kinda had a civic duty as one of the most victimized of this scheme to make sure that students have the consumer and bankruptcy protections that they deserve and all debtors deserve.
What are you able to do with the student debt committee? What are your powers? Limitations?
Anything short of being able to change federal law is a limitation, but I think some of the some of the strongest things we can do is really use our position as the official voice of our student body is to educate, agitate and organize.
We’re using it for, one, an educational campaign to teach our students or have a larger conversation about the causes and effects of the student debt crisis. To agitate so that we can let our students know that there are ways to take direct action to push for reform at the federal level, and to organize their efforts, and hopefully mobilize our student body and other campuses to do the same.
Are you hearing from student leaders at other campuses who are likeminded and want to do what you’re doing?
(As an advisor to the student debt committee of the Illinois Board of Higher Education’s Student Advisory Council, I work alongside) representatives from every college and university in the state, private and public. It’s one way to serve as a clearinghouse for actions that are going on at our campus and a way to have sort of a cross-campus coordination with students from different schools that can replicate efforts and take them to the next level.
If there’s one message you want to send about student debt, what is it?
I think the most important message is that we are where we are because every basic consumer right and bankruptcy protection has been stripped away systematically from students over the past two decades. And it is precisely because those consumer rights have been stripped away that we not only have students with untenable loads of debt but also—this is probably the least known fact—that is precisely why costs have spiraled. Because you have what is now a structurally predatory lending system that’s being run by the federal government where there are no bankruptcy protections, no statute of limitations and they have extraordinary collection powers. Those three things put together allow the federal government to hold students by the throat by the rest of their lives – that’s a predatory lending system.
What can students and others do to support you?
One thing we’re doing on our campus, and I’d really like to see this at replicated at other college campuses, is that we’re pursuing a ballot referendum. At the University of Illinois you can get a certain number of signatures from the student body, you can put a question on the ballot in front of the entire student body —for us here that’s 42,000 students strong.
Our question is going to be “Should Congress restore basic bankruptcy protections and consumer rights, like statutes of limitation on the collection of student debt, for student loans?”
I’m sure you can imagine this won’t be a very controversial proposal in front of any student body and I think that sends a strong message to campus.
We also want to hold a town hall on our campus and really engage the Illinois congressional delegation.
Other campuses can get up-to-date information on how to organize and news about student loans at Studentloanjustice.org.