digital college with a yellow background and black all-caps sans serif text that reads "Debt" takes up the lower center left. Digital illustrations of three protesters stand with their backs to the front are under the "Debt" text, and a black-and-white photograph of a Black woman with short hair curly hair takes up the right side of the collage. from the top left, a dotted line curls on itself and has "student debt" in black letters curling with it
Designed by Lara Witt

We Owe You Nothing is a series by The Debt Collective and Prism looking at four different kinds of major debt: student loan debt, medical debt, carceral debt, and renters’ debt. Our goal is to shift the narrative around debt and break the false idea that it is a personal, moral failure and that “easy” money management advice and a bootstrap mentality are the only solutions to financial freedom. The pieces will uncover debt traps, highlight collective organizing tactics, and celebrate the growing debt abolition movement. As The Debt Collective says, “Alone our debts are a burden, but together they make us powerful.” Read the complete series here.

Anxiety ambushes me most mornings. A wave of financial regret, a tsunami growing more massive with each breath, threatens to destroy me and take my community along with it. 

The full story of why I’m in the red for my education begins in grade school. After spending my K-12 academic life navigating the treacherous terrain of the public education system, I somehow managed not to be a “Child Left Behind.” My dyslexia diagnosis didn’t halter my ability to excel academically, nor was I derailed by my father’s death in high school. I harbored “grit” and “resilience,” buzzwords white people often use to praise poor Black and brown kids for harnessing. After being accepted into the University of Washington, I made the dean’s list, studied abroad, and took some of the most academically rigorous courses of my life. 

However, getting my diploma wasn’t my ticket out of poverty. It only marked the beginning of my descent into debt. 

I entered the workforce during the Great Recession of 2008, barely 20 years old and with more than $20,000 in student loan debt. My first job out of college was working full time at a nonprofit for a mere $5/hr. I was on food stamps and shared a dilapidated apartment in Seattle with a roommate. I wanted nothing more than to be a full-time literary artist, but I had no idea how to go about it. Coming from a working-class family hadn’t afforded me the leisure time rich kids enjoyed, and I wasn’t privy to the connections and start-up capital necessary to make my creative visions a reality. So, I did what many women around me were doing: I applied to graduate school. 

I was accepted into Mills College’s MFA program in poetry. Was my graduate education overpriced? Absolutely. Did it feel like my only option at the time? Yes. My MFA degree landed me deeper in debt while simultaneously opening the door to better job prospects. Two-thirds of student debtors are women, but Black women carry the heaviest burden of any other demographic group. Though we obtain advanced degrees in hopes of earning higher wages, Black women earn just 63 cents for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men. This causes us to stay indebted for longer, while also resulting in an earnings loss of nearly $1 million throughout our careers

After graduating with my MFA degree, I landed a job at WritersCorps. I’d applied four times. The program paid writers $30/hr to work as teaching artists in community sites across San Francisco. I went on to spend the next eight years working in the field I’d studied in. As a poet in residence at the San Francisco Juvenile Center, I led healing-centered creative writing classes with thousands of incarcerated kids. Though my work was difficult at times, it was extraordinarily fulfilling. So why did I still feel like I was being penalized? I made income-driven repayments on my student loans during this time but never made a dent in my debt. 

One day after teaching, one of my students exclaimed, “That workshop was hella fun! I almost forgot I was in jail for a second.”

Sometimes I’d forget I was in debt, but a sinking feeling lingered in the back of my mind, a reminder that the financial burden of my education was perhaps the worst mistake of my life. It didn’t help that, like most arts programs, my job was constantly in flux, transitioning from a project of the San Francisco Arts Commission to a grant until funding was eventually cut in 2022. The job didn’t always have an Employer Identification Number (EIN), which made me ineligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), a federal student loan forgiveness program that denies 98% of applicants. To add insult to injury, in 2017, Mills College declared a financial emergency, nearly stuttering as an institution, though it merged with Northeastern University in May 2022, effectively avoiding financial ruin. 

However, my problems were only worsening. My federal student loan debt had ballooned to more than $120,000. It felt like a life sentence.

If my debt story sounds familiar, that’s because I’m not alone. More than 43 million people in the U.S. have student loan debt, and while our stories may vary, we are bonded by the debilitating burden that our debt creates. The student debt crisis has become an almost $1.8 trillion problem—and it’s a problem that doesn’t have to exist. In fact, debt is barely about money at all. Debt is mostly about control. 

To understand how this phenomenon relates to the U.S. education system, we have to go back to the 1950s. Americans once invested in affordable—even free—college in some states, albeit for mostly white men. However, the combination of school desegregation and integration in the 1960s and the Anti-War Movement of the 1970s resulted in an increase in diverse students entering campuses nationwide. Many of these students led protests against the Vietnam War and challenged institutions to introduce new fields of study. When former president Ronald Reagan was governor of California, his education advisor Roger A. Freeman feared that continued affordable college education would lead to an “educated proletariat.” Reagan cut funding for California’s public universities, causing the schools to raise tuition, and he continued to slash public funding during his presidency, shifting federal tuition grants to loans. 

Democrats also played a role in exacerbating the student debt crisis. Private lenders were initially apprehensive about lending money to lower-income people. Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Higher Education Act of 1965, which included a federal student loan insurance program to back private lenders. However, what happens when you turn education into a commodity? Colleges raise tuition, and lenders have a field day hiking up interest rates. The 1980s and ’90s saw the rise of for-profit colleges, which preyed on lower-income folks with promises of upward mobility. Add on the fact that student loans are some of the only loans that are impossible to escape through bankruptcy, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster. Student debt policies enacted since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic will cost more than $900 billion over a decade, more than they’ve ever invested in higher education in this nation’s history.

Even though my debt still causes me to feel waves of anxiety, I breathe easier now. I fight back with the support of The Debt Collective, the nation’s first debtors’ union. Similar to how workers’ unions organize to advocate for higher wages and labor rights, a debtors’ union uses the power of solidarity to demand debt abolition. With roots in the Occupy Wallstreet Movement, the Debt Collective has won incredible gains, one of which was President Joe Biden’s student debt relief plan announcement—a plan that would provide up to $20,000 in student debt cancellation for eligible borrowers. This announcement was a hard win that took nearly a decade of pressure before politicians began to speak openly about the severity of the student debt crisis, let alone take steps to remedy it. If Biden’s plan survives a conservative-leaning Supreme Court, it will wipe out the student loan balances of 20 million borrowers and provide $400 billion in economic relief to working-class Americans. 

However, canceling debt alone doesn’t solve the root of the crisis. The ultimate goal is free college for all—a goal we must continue to fight for. Maybe my background as a literary artist makes imagining a future where everyone has access to higher education so tantalizing. Maybe all the Maya Angelou I’ve read makes it impossible for me to bear an untold student debt story inside of me. I can only hope that you’ll have the courage to tell your own story too.

Maddy Clifford is an Oakland-based writer, musician and organizer. Her creative practice tackles intersectional feminist topics, from debt abolition to environmental justice. Maddy's work has been featured...