An Education At All Costs? The Politics of Shame and Debt: First Steps to Overcoming the Student Loan Debt Crisis - CFCT

Posted by Maica Pichler on June 15, 2015 at 1:31 PM

Recently, I had a discussion about language that I preferred to use to describe the response to Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore, Maryland. His death, and countless others across the country, had sparked a popular uprising. During the movement, I noticed on Twitter that the hashtags #BaltimoreRising and #BaltimoreUprising were being used by a lot of folks sympathetic to the cause. 

I insisted that these were more appropriate than using the term “riot,” but someone quickly chastised me, and said,“This whole movement has been about defying shame. I’m happy to reclaim ‘riot’ rather than distance/euphemise [sic].”

And that point struck me: the point about how the movement was about defying shame. It reminded me of another embarrassment that many Americans are now trying to overcome: student loan debt. Through my work advocating on behalf of student loan debtors, I have found that this, too, is a movement to overcome shame. In fact, I call those who advocate for student loan debtors the indentured educated class – a defiant, collective term that dares to open up the conversation about how this is NOT an individual problem, but one that effects the public good. 

I began advocating, writing, and researching about this issue over six years ago, along with the founding of All Education Matters. In the beginning, student debtors were reticent to publicly share their stories. When I began to ask them to submit their stories – testimonials – on AEM. I was the first to share their tales, their every day life struggles of what it was like to be educated and terribly indebted in the United Sates. The stories began to spill in from across the country, and even the world. 

Through these stories, we were able to weave a collective narrative about the student loan debt crisis, long before even the Federal Reserve acknowledged what the country was facing. At the same time, I began to make the rounds on Capitol Hill to discuss the crisis with Congressional leaders and staffers. Behind closed doors I was told, “Yes, we agree with you. There is a crisis, but we can’t say that publicly.” My, how things have changed. 

Every politician and news outlet, regardless of political leanings, now publicly discusses the student loan debt crisis. All Education Matters and the collective voice of student loan debtors pushed hard to make this a prominent policy issue and a recognized societal problem. This, along with years of research and writing – which I have contributed to – proved successful in doing just that.

So, what changed? Overcoming the shame that we were unable to live the American Dream enabled us to make student loan debt part of the public conversation. We have re-channeled our shame into activism.

That’s where the Campaign for Free College Tuition comes into play. CFCT is working hard to create opportunity out of these new possibilities to provide free education for young people. Young people deserve to escape from the indentured educated class, and instead be able to pursue the American Dream. 

This idea of free college is nothing new. It’s time to make that a part of the American narrative again. It’s time to overcome our shame and recognize that openness about our tribulations with debt can contribute to the prospect of free college tuition.

It’s time for the revival of the American Dream through free college education.


Ms. C. Cryn Johannsen, Founder and Executive Director of All Education Matters, Inc., is the author of Higher Ed, Greater Debt: The Student Loan Crisis (manuscript is currently being revised).

She has spent many years in academic environments, giving her an insider's understanding of the varying forms of educational institutions and how they function. Ms. Johannsen worked for an academic publishing company, but now advocates for individuals who are struggling or unable to pay off their student loan debt on Capitol Hill.

In addition to her previous employment, Ms. Johannsen has been a student at multiple levels at multiple institutions, beginning at a community college, graduating with honors from the University of Kansas, and receiving MAs from both the University of Chicago and Brown University (where she also participated in an exchange scholar program with Harvard). She is an experienced researcher and instructor, and has focused her own education on the study of History and the Social Sciences.

Ms. Johannsen is currently working on a book about the student lending crisis. She also gives talks to organizations and universities, and makes frequent appearances for interviews on radio and television.

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The Campaign for Free College Tuition is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization established in the State of Washington in 2014 to educate parents, students, the higher education community, policy makers and taxpayers about efforts needed to fundamentally reform our nation’s system for financing higher education. This website and CFCT’s educational outreach activities are made possible through generous individual and foundation support.