September 22, 2011

Why Not Forgive All Student Loans to Artists to Stimulate the Economy?

If big banks, credit card companies, and Wall Street firms can get hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts and loan forgiveness, why can’t the students of America? Or more precisely, the art students of America? The way I see it is that the most creative people in the country are waiting tables, slaving away as secretaries, and doing menial jobs because their art degrees haven’t translated into earning potential. As a consequence, possibly tens of thousands — or maybe hundreds of thousands — of creative people around the country have given up their art and switched to non-art activities in order to pay the rent. So in 2009 (most recent year for census data), out of the 89,140 BFAs, 14,918 MFAs, and 1,569 PhDs granted in fine arts, just how many of those people are really making a living in the arts? My guess is: not many.

Does that seem fair? When the housing bubble popped and the economic crisis began, politicians never expected the bankers and Wall Street traders to give up their careers. Just the opposite is true — they were rewarded for making it bad for everyone else. So what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right? Forgive all student loans and let art students (current and former) start with a clean slate, too. It just might do more for the arts in America than even the WPA or the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965.

As more scrutiny is being given to the financial industry, people are beginning to see what a scam it really is. Even Nato Thompson (UC Berkeley grad and now the chief curator at New York’s Creative Time) recently launched an impassioned Facebook conversation debating the merits of having a nationwide simultaneous default on student loans. I think his idea was that it might somehow hurt the Wall Street holders of the debt. But I prefer a more rational approach — namely the one that favors — direct political action in the form of supporting legislation. On their site they explain just how shocking the situation really is:

“While credit card borrowers enjoy the fundamental consumer protections afforded all other borrowers with all other types of debt, federal student loan borrowers enjoy almost none of these protections. Not bankruptcy protections, not statutes of limitations, not truth in lending laws, not state usury laws … (in fact,) nonprofit guarantors are even exempt from fair debt collection statutes.”

So, basically, student loans are a huge growth industry, and big banks and Wall Street only stand to benefit from them just like they have with mortgage debt, derivatives, ATM fees, paycheck cashing stores (which, by the way, are allowed to charge interest up to 650% on a payday loan), and credit card debt. In fact, according to, student loan debt is set to hit one trillion dollars later this year. That’s more than all U.S. credit card debt combined! So when will that bubble pop? Will that bring another market crash? Will banks get bailed out again and students all go to debtor’s prison? Somebody should be asking these questions, but so far I haven’t heard a single politician, pundit, or talk show host — and certainly not a single Tea Partier — seriously address the issue.

So while politicians fret over America losing its edge as an innovator, they are, at the same time, tossing their most creative people to the loan sharks. In fact, loan sharking laws used to exist citing terms like “usury” because the loans were given with the purpose that they could never realistically get repaid. But the terms and interest rates that were once illegal are now commonplace, and people are hurting because of it.

So who exactly is going to stand up for students and all the artists, curatorial studies majors, industrial design majors, creative writing majors, art history majors — and even the art schools, which are also caught in the financial spider web? Well, so far it looks like hardly anybody. Here’s the best going on so far:

1) Over 50,000 people have signed a petition asking Congress to pass student loan forgiveness legislation. You can sign it here.

2) On September 2, Rep. Hansen Clarke from Michigan introduced House Resolution 365, which states: “Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that Congress should cut the United States’ true debt burden by reducing home mortgage balances, forgiving student loans, and bringing down overall personal debt.”

3) Some media outlets like the are starting to look at the issue; “Majoring in Debt” is one of its series about the problems students are encountering.

4) Illegal practices by financial institutions are starting to be brought to light by journalists and class action suits. In 2007 when then-Attorney General of New York Andrew Cuomo investigated several major financial companies that profited from student loans, his investigators found:

  • Lenders pay kickbacks to schools based on a percentage of the loans directed to the lenders.
  • Lenders foot the bills for all-expense-paid trips for financial aid officers to posh resorts and exotic locations. They also provide schools with other benefits, like computer systems, and put representatives from schools on their advisory boards to curry favor.
  • Loan companies set up funds and credit lines for schools to use in exchange for putting the lenders on their preferred lender lists and offer large payments to schools to drop out of the direct federal loan program so that the lenders get more business.

It’s a neat trick that the financial industry has performed, but the net effect is a huge creative brain drain (as Glen Helfand noted in an earlier post). Don’t get me wrong — we need banks, and financial companies have every right to make money, but their predatory behavior destroys careers and, in some cases, lives — and that is what I object to.

A general lack of support is bad enough, but then to have countless artists driven away from what they went to school for, it’s kind of tragic. Imagine if all the medical students did not become doctors but instead became waiters. Imagine if all the police academy graduates had to wash dishes or perform office work to pay off their student loans. We’d have no more doctors and no more cops. Likewise most artists end up in fields that pay the rent but that they feel no passion for. Fortunately for the student loan companies, by not making art, their borrowers can afford make their student loan payments. Even if it takes 30 years.

Comments (32)

  • Your arguments are well explained and reflect the situation in other countries in the world as well. Supporting artists is both brave and dangerous. Hardly ever have people (in general) understood the importance and value of art. I hope this will change some day. Looking forward to it.

  • Student loan forgiveness for all students would be nice especially now. I’m currently going to school for graphic design and wasn’t left with much of a choice but to take out a loan to cover the cost of attending because Pell only covered a portion. Scholarships are helpful however they are extremely hard to win as well as earn. Art isn’t my only specialty since I do some writing as well. Finding a job as an artist isn’t difficult because they are out there. The problem comes in when the company/business looking to hire an artist, seeing the education and work history, may feel hesitant to hire due in part to not wanting to pay out the amount the artist is worth. I am doing work as a freelancer (both writing and art) and it works just fine but there is a lot competition in the market.

  • Stu Grimson says:

    Your post answers its own question: Why are there something like 105,000 degreed artists (and who knows how many non-degreed artists/illustrators/designers/etc) who are all waiting tables? Answer: Because there are 105,000 degreed artists (+ the others), and we have no use for that many artists. No civilization in history needs, or can long support, such a large number of people sitting around with a guitar or a paintbrush and calling that their “contribution”. Don’t get me wrong, I love art; but you are not entitled to be an artist and make a living doing it any more than I am entitled to a job playing hockey or testing video games. The reason most non-artists get annoyed with artists is this profound sense of entitlement.

    I do think that you should have recourse against the borderline criminal art schools selling you access to the art world for $50k a year, knowing full well that 95% of you will fail and a full 98% will never get a ROI on your degree. The whole thing seems like a giant scam to me, and art school kids with stars in their eyes and no world experience at 17-18 years old seem like the suckers. I have heard over and over from my artist friends that the real value in good art schools comes from the connections and relationships you form, but that’s just another way of saying “We have the keys to the world you want to be a part of; pay us stupid amounts of money and you can use our school’s name to lend your work credibility.” It’s just a scam, with a gatekeeper charging for access despite knowing that most of you will drop off a cliff as soon as you walk through the door.

    (I have a lot of artist friends and it’s been very frustrating to see them beat themselves up over their financial failures and the difficulty of breaking into that insular little world.)

    -Stu, electrical engineer who would much rather have a job studying ancient religions and civilizations but who realizes that you have to get a real job doing something society needs in order to earn the leisure to sit around reading books or making art all day

  • Frank Lostaunau says:

    Incidentally, I thought that students understood that higher education = DEBT! i was misinformed…

    also, if you have no idea how to pay your debts, you’re in deep do-do…

  • Frank Lostaunau says:

    Don’t borrow money if you don’t want pay it back. Keep it simple.

    I know artists that sit around and talk. They also work hard to pay their bills and raise families.

    Don’t go to art school, you’ll end up broke. It’s overrated!

    If you don’t work and earn money, pay your bills, and have a life, too bad.

    Don’t expect me to buy you a cup of coffee. sheeeeesh…

  • Stephanie Syjuco says:

    I come to this discussion late in the game but I commend Chris Cobb for bringing to the table a discussion that actually provokes a host of responses from the public. Kudos to those who provided thoughtful responses! Boo to those who saw it as an opportunity to sling insults.

  • Jack von Bauer says:

    41 years old. And the mind of a ten year old. Saddo member of the Pee Party.

    You are to art what Jeffrey Dahmer was to gay outreach.

  • Jack von Bauer says:

    Yawn. Another boring thieving socialist. Like the world doesn’t have enough already.

  • Actually this post was preceded by another I wrote a few months back on art school/student loan dilemma:

  • Thanks for the response. Yep, I read the whole post. I totally agree about a conversation. Nobody sits around and talks anymore, and that’s a good point that the best comments are a conversation. It seems like gatekeepers/editors simply want to keep it dumbed down like Huxley would have predicted. la la la don’t rock the boat. I believe that a ‘major’ artist or sponsor who is operating in reality would love to have feedback on their operations, views, perspectives, and what they say. Especially if the feedback is from peers, end users, or consumers or if it was me, anybody with a unique perspective that I can learn from, ruminate on, or take and run with. So maybe the problem is a lack of bravery on the ‘blog post’ editor’s part. The gatekeeper. This is where SFMOMA rules. I hope you take this topic further into a post someday; I would love to read what you have to say about it at length after exploring the concept for a while. I cannot possibly be the only artist with this view/experience.

  • S.P Reid – thanks for your interest and it is encouraging to know someone is actually reading my entire post before writing a comment. I Would say this though – in regards to saying whatever you want – in my view it is all about context and truth. I don’t believe if something is true that it should get the axe. However, if someone is deliberately obnoxious or snarky or is telling intentional lies or pretending to “comment” but really has some weird, pathetic personal grudge, then why bother posting a comment? Why waste everyone’s time? The best comments are not wild rants but a conversation.

  • Wow, I just had to say something here, this article was keeping my interest as I read down the page, because it’s an interesting idea that is getting batted around. BUT, I just had to say something in reference to what Chris Cobb pointed out that could be a whole new subject that I would love to see him (or someone) write at length about. It could be the seed that starts the actual real free opinion/idea revolution. Not trying to hijack something away from the student loan thing but Chris is absolutely right on the money when he says stuff can be discussed here at SFMOMA that would turn into deleted posts that never see the light of day on many more places than the ones he mentioned. I browse a lot of art sites and sometimes I post up a long comment, and like Chris says if it isn’t kissing ass or watching what you say then it doesn’t see the light of day. The Walker Art place is an example that I can say from firsthand experience, if you happen to have a differing opinion about something like how profound they think one particular ‘famous’ artist is (which is what I did) then the post never see’s the light of day. As a verifying point, just go to some of these places and look at all the comments; they all seem to say “ooh such a great post” or “ I am so profoundly impressed by this article, thank you for your genius brain”.
    My point is that I would love to see Chris or someone or a lot of people do a piece on this topic. How those places that he mentioned are in the same arena as SFMOMA but really SFMOMA is the one place in this ‘big name’ arena where you can state your opinions and do what you want basically. Everyone here can say freely what they want or talk about topics and IDEAS without having the letdown of getting censored by some worrywart.

    Thanks!!! SFMOMA is the best place and I am so glad that I live here as well.

  • SFMOMA: doesn’t Bank of America sponsor some of your big exhibitions?

  • Larry You have a lot of ideas but to address your
    #2 point – Education policy: simple solution – maybe education should be free or very cheap as it has been in postwar Europe.
    #3 Point: everyone seems to forget the bailout was paid for with OUR tax dollars. Paid to many corporations. The bailout was sold as a “one time shot in the arm” by the Bush administration and then Obama inherited it. I would accept a one time debt forgiveness program the same way hundred billion dollar loans are forgiven to foreign countries. The same way corporations are allowed to have their debts restructured, refinanced or simply wiped away. The same way bankruptcy used to be able to give consumers a fresh start. Your message seems to ignore predatory lending practices and any wrong doing on the part of the financial companies I discussed. After the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, corporate person hood has become a legal fact. So therefore, if the corporate person can donate unlimited amounts of cash in secret to candidates AND be allowed to declare bankruptcy AND get a fresh start by having their debts wiped away, then why can’t an individual PERSON? Does that seem fair to you?

    Also I would be curious to know what exactly you mean by the term socially constructive. Artists are asked and expected to volunteer their time in a million ways, both at nonprofit organizations, in schools and in the community. Countless organizations take advantage of the free labor, graphic design abilities, print design abilities, photography abilities, etc, etc, that artists learn in school. They also teach at elementary schools, at nursing homes, and perform all kinds of socially constructive work. Maybe you have a different definition of what socially constructive means?

  • A. Gilmore – I’m not exactly clear what your point is…. Either you are accusing me of being some servile corporate zombie slave, if so, did you happen to notice that I am flipping off Bank of America in my post? But then again maybe you are trying to make me aware that Bank of America is a major funder of SFMOMA? In which case, yes I do know. However, it also happens to be my personal bank so that is why I added the image. Had I been a Wells Fargo customer, the picture would have been of Wells Fargo.

    I would add this though – it would never happen on MOMA’s site in New York, nor on the Guggenheim’s site, on the Walker Art Center’s or on LACAMA’s. Why? Because it would probably piss off a major funder, i.e; Bank of America. But yet, there it is. That should say something about the institution’s dedication to freedom of speech, wouldn’t you agree?

  • Chris, how much of your paycheck comes from money that BofA grants SFMOMA?

  • This is an idea that good leftists should be ashamed of, rather than supporting. Essentially: Why should we should forgive the loans of college grads at the expense of the helping the working poor? Sounds pretty regressive to me. This is just another example of privileged people advocating for themselves in the guise of some sort of populist rhetoric.

    If that doesn’t convince you, here are three other reasons why it also makes no sense economically.

    1# Macroeconomics: If you want stimulus, you get more bang-for-your-buck if you give extra dollars to folks who are most likely to spend each dollar. Imagine what would happen if you forgave $50,000 in debt. How much of that would get spent in the next month or year? Probably just a couple of grand (if that). Much of it would go into the bank. But give $1,000 to each of 50 poor people, and nearly all of it will get spent, yielding a larger stimulus. Moreover, it’s not likely that college grads are the ones who are liquidity-constrained. Most of ‘em could spend more if they wanted to; after all, they are the folks who could get a credit card or a car loan fairly easily. It’s the hand-to-mouth consumers—those who can’t get easy access to credit—who are most likely to raise their spending if they get the extra dollars.

    2# Education Policy: Perhaps folks think that forgiving educational loans will lead more people to get an education. No, it won’t. This is a proposal to forgive the debt of folks who already have an education. Want to increase access to education? Make loans more widely available, or subsidize those who are yet to choose whether to go to school. But this proposal is just a lump-sum transfer that won’t increase education attainment. So why transfer to these folks?

    3# Political Economy: This is a bunch of kids who don’t want to pay their loans back. And worse: Do this once, and what will happen in the next recession? More lobbying for free money, rather than doing something socially constructive. Moreover, if these guys succeed, others will try, too. And we’ll just get more spending in the least socially productive part of our economy—the lobbying industry.

  • Christine Wong Yap says:

    Here’s an idea: Bring back the US Dept of Ed as a lender. That’s who my BFA student loans were with. The interest rates were amazing (4-6%), the communication was easy and clear, and I was able to pay it off earlier than expected, even working at non-profit job teaching art(!). Students would save money on interest rates, and the Dept of Ed would make a portion of what has been privatized. And what better end to profit than public ed.

    In fairness, some of the growth in student loans, cited as 13 trillion and indicated in the chart, can be attributed to the growth of Millennial students as a demographic. More lenders are cashing in, and interest rates are higher, but there’s also just more students getting more degrees and thus more loans.

    The allegations of illegal practices seems largely associative — to credit card companies, mortgage lenders, payday lenders, loan sharks. Objecting to illegal or unsavory practices is one thing, arguing for forgiveness wholesale seems like another.

  • Very interesting reading and well supported by your facts. Good job representing artists and creatives in the larger set of Americans for whom student loan debt has become completely untenable thanks to unreasonably high interest,and complicated lending rules that heavily favor the lender, high tuition and unbridled borrowing, and the removal of bankruptcy protection for those that have no other recourse but to file.

    One of the most exciting things about imagining a one time jubilee of forgiving all student loans to stimulate the economy is the effect that it would have on freeing wage slaves. People undoubtedly would be able to start that start up, write that book, change that career, figure out a life in which they could paint, dance, etc. if they were free from the burden of their student loan. Then, other people coming up behind could take the menial or entry level job and the system could again begin to flow. Moreover, think of the supplies, equipment and food that the starving artist would run out and buy immediately if given a chance. That alone would put NY and CA back on the map! Please look on the website and sign at least one of the petitions to forgive student loans in order to keep this discussion in the forefront!

  • Here is some useful wisdom on what student loans are really about, and why there will be no “forgiveness.”

  • David Alvarez – thanks for noticing the reference to Weiwei. Glad someone is paying attention!

  • Sloover – Not paying loans back in general is a bad idea. If you sign the contract, you sign the contract. What I object to is the obscene profits the financial companies- including Salliemae, BofA, etc, etc, make off of the loans. Mostly due to unfair practices that border on illegal or were once illegal. What happened to the housing market happened in part because of deregulation of the financial industry over the past 30 years. What happened to mortgages can also happen to student loans leaving students not knowing who they owe to, how much to pay with no recourse but to pay whatever the owner of the debt says for as long as they say.
    Also as I noted, the chief curator at New York’s CREATIVE TIME, Nato Thompson, has a punk rock streak in him and has been encouraging a ‘default on your student loans’ movement, which I do not support. It’s fun to talk about but it would only be cool for those who don’t ever care about their credit or getting a good job. In this era of background checks, credit looms large in some fields where you have responsibility over other peoples’ money.

  • Lack of funding in education is designed precisely to keep people from being creative. How about artists just refuse to pay their student loans? Take a risk. Every privilege and freedom we enjoy was not handed down from above ONE BIT. It was won by people taking a stand.

  • chiming back in here – i think student loan forgiveness is an important and compelling argument *in the current economy* and for all students. undergrads (especially the ones i teach at the community college level) are drowning in debt to get through school and facing grim job prospects upon graduation. THAT is an option to keep people pursuing higher degrees that will jump start a flagging economy.

    secondly, as for art school debt, i seemed to notice that many, if not all of my contemporaries at parsons were funded by a family or personal trust. it was overwhelming to be piling up debt for an art degree, but that is the choice anyone makes, as others have noted here. what distinguishes this choice from say, piling up a whopping $300K in debt as a med student does, is the prospect for repayment can be grim or slim. this goes back to my previous argument: change the cultural stereotype of being an artist as a legitimate and vital career choice and you’ll have an easier time keeping programs like the WPA or the NEA alive (who used to, but do not any longer, fund individual artists) and make being an artist for a living a somewhat more viable opportunity – not one that deserves special treatment.

  • I agree with Narangkar. This issue has almost nothing to do with the cultural stereotype of the “starving artist.” While I agree it is a shame that many artists cannot make a living doing what they like, forgiving student loans for artists will not change that fact. There are many fields in addition to the arts that have very few professional opportunities available upon departure from college/grad school. It is simply ridiculous to suggest that artists – and only artists – should be granted loan forgiveness. By suggesting this you are propagating the idea that artists are a “special class of people” and the very stereotype you despise.
    While we all understand that artists tend to be pigeonholed into this role, simply complaining about it will not change a thing. Suggesting and working towards changes in our society, culture, and economy, however, are productive measures. Like many professions now firmly established in our economy have done throughout history, artists must work to find their own place in our economic landscape. To suggest that the government or society should prop artists up financially because they can’t make money in their chosen field is absurd and detrimental to your own success.

  • Why not forgive all student loan debt, period, is of course a next logical (and necessary) question to ask.

  • Christine Wong Yap says:

    I agree with Narangkar that exceptionalizing artists is a poor way to make allies and supporters of non-artists. Her argument reveals exactly the kind of knowledge and responsibility that many proponents of student loan debt forgiveness allege that young art students aren’t capable of.

    What makes this line of reasoning so uncomfortable for me is that it emphasizes artists’ financial ignorance and overall social victimization (Tossed to the loan sharks? Of all the egregious financial products out there, no student loan lenders ever sent me junk mail, tabled at my high school or junior college, or offered raffles. The only thing I remember them pushing was an EFT — which lowers my interest rate, keeps my credit rating up, and means I have one less thing I have to think about every month).

    I’ve heard artists express feelings of persecution, and the sentiment that artists are _owed_ support, respect, or special treatment such as this. But that doesn’t speak for me. In fact I find it quite alienating.

  • no one made you chose to go into debt in pursuit of an art degree, rather than getting training in a skill that society is willing to pay more for. everyone wants their freedom to choose, but no one wants to accept the consequences of their acts.

    you remind me of the people who go to college, get a teaching credential, then complain about the salary they make as a teacher: did they not do any research? if they did, and chose to become a teacher anyway, because they love teaching or whatever the motivation, they should shut up and live with the decision they made. anyone who didn’t do the research and just picked it is, i submit, too stupid to be allowed to teach, credential on not.

    if you want to make a living and do art, you should get a j*b skill in school, and take a minor in whatever art field interests you. that way you will have a rewarding hobby to give you a break from the j*b, and you might even hit it big.

    if you have an overwhelming urge to create, and can’t bear the thought of doing anything else, then go ahead and make the choice, but don’t complain, because it was just that: your choice.

    besides, we all know that the best art is born form suffering and struggle, so we’re actually helping you. a little gratitude on your part would be nice.

  • Megan- well put. We live in a society where the stereotype of the “starving artist” is so widespread, it has become normal to people, and we expect artists to fail or take up another profession to make money. How do we get people to see artists as just as integral to our societies as doctors, lawyers, bankers, etc? Is it even possible at this stage in the game?

  • “Why Not..” ?

    Because artists are not (to quote Kerry James Marshall) a “special class of people”. The call to forgive student loan debt is a nice sentiment, but utterly absurd. There’s no sound argument for it, other than the argument that artists are “a special class of citizens” to whom the laws of normal society don’t apply, perhaps because of the intangible value that the arts provide to society. This is hyper-liberalism, and simply not realistic thinking.

    You provide good numbers for “the 89,140 BFA’s granted, out of the 14,918 MFA’s granted and the 1,569 P.h.D’s granted in fine arts”… and then you pose “just how many of those people are really making a living in the arts?” To which your answer is: “My guess is: not many”.

    Surely you can come up with a figure. The IRS would be able to tell you how many 1040’s are filed with the occupation “artist”, and you could go from there. I, for one, would really like to know.

    As for me, I took out loans to pay for undergrad at CCAC. About $40K total. I made my payment (begrudgingly maybe) every month. Now I’m all paid off, and I’m putting that money that I got accustomed to paying toward an IRA. I got the chance to get my MFA from a public institution, which I highly recommend looking into if you are seeking higher education in the arts and humanities. …But the reality is, even among public institutions, Student Loans are a fact of life for nearly every individual in this country. And, even given that the loans get parceled out to private lenders, and those lenders have questionable, and even illegal practices, a student loan is still one of the soundest financial decisions an individual will make in his or her lifetime. It’s one of the lowest risk financial decisions one could make, with one of the highest rewards, and best possible outcomes, EVEN without the guarantee of a higher income, post-graduation. If one does not get an education because one does not want to have student loan debt, one is merely where one was, without a degree, and most importantly, without four years of valuable time spent learning, exploring, and expanding one’s critical thinking skills. If we desire our loans to be forgiven, we are saying that the agreement we signed should not be honored because, well, it didn’t pay off according to our plans. Artists are no different than the person digging the ditch, the lawyer, or the doctor. To be a professional in any field means working toward making contributions to that field – as a whole. We are not a special class of people that gets to circumnavigate the processes required in order to make those contributions, to add value to it, and to reap the benefits from it.

  • Important post. I would add we need a general cultural shift in how our society views artists. Reframing the stereotype of the artist living outside of and possibly off of mainstream society, to seeing them as innovators and important cultural contributors. Stopping the slashing of arts programs in early education seems essential to this.

  • An admirer of Ai Weiwei? Nicely done

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