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Former NAACP President Ben Jealous on Student Debt Crisis & the Need to Make Public Universities Free

Web ExclusiveMay 28, 2019
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Web-only conversation with former NAACP President Ben Jealous and De’Jaun Davis-Correia, a 2019 Morehouse graduate. Earlier this month, the billionaire investor Robert Smith stunned many when he offered to pay off the student loans of the 2019 graduating class at the historically black Morehouse College.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, earlier this month, the billionaire investor Robert Smith stunned many when he offered to pay off the student loans of the 2019 graduating class at Morehouse College, the historically black college in Atlanta, the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Last month, Elizabeth Warren unveiled a sweeping plan to cancel most student loan debt while making public colleges tuition-free. In an online statement announcing the plan, Warren said she would, quote, “Make free college truly universal—not just in theory, but in practice—by making higher education of all kinds more inclusive and available to every single American, especially lower-income, Black, and Latinx students, without the need to take on debt to cover costs.” Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders made free public college a cornerstone of both his 2016 and now his 2020 campaign, though Senator Warren says her idea goes further.

We continue our conversation with De’Jaun Davis-Correia, a 2019 Morehouse College graduate, and Ben Jealous, the former national president of the NAACP.

AMY GOODMAN: Writer Lindsay King-Miller tweeted, “If you liked 'billionaire pays off one graduating class's student loans’ you’re gonna love 'free college for everyone by taxing the wealthy.'”

Ben Jealous, let’s begin with you. You not only were head of the NAACP. You ran for governor. You also put forward a plan in Maryland for public education. We ended Part 1 of our conversation by you speaking about this. Can you talk about your thoughts on the Warren and Sanders plans and what you think needs to happen?

BEN JEALOUS: We’ve got to go back to the future. Our country has prospered because we have unleashed the future faster, well, than any country on Earth. And what really drove that was that we were a place where great education was affordable to everybody. In the case of our public universities, it was free to everybody. And that’s changed, and it’s holding us back. We have great minds whose greatest ideas are not being unleashed because young people can’t afford to go to school. And it’s going to hold back our economy for years. And the way that we move forward faster is we go back to what we used to do, and we make our colleges and universities very affordable, and we make the public ones free. We can do it. We just simply have to decide to invest in our love for our kids again. Again, it’s what we used to do. It was the norm of this country, and we have strayed. And we’ve got to get back to doing what works.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ben, this whole issue of, well, people should should have to pay for college. The reality is that high school, years ago, in many places people had to pay for a high school education. High school became free at a certain point when the society realized that you needed a high school education. Today everyone talks about you need a college education to be able to get a decent-paying job. Yet there’s no move on the part of the society or the local or federal governments to actually provide either free college education or at least low-cost education.

BEN JEALOUS: Well, you know, it’s funny. You can look at it that way. You know, you can look at it as us evolving. But what’s wild is that actually the further you go back into history, sort of the better the deal was—I mean, certainly for the last few generations. You know, I’m Generation X. We came out saddled in debt. De’Jaun, you know, is, I guess, a millennial. They’re even in more debt. But when I ran for governor, my running mate was a baby boomer who had moved to the state because the University of Maryland was almost free. And if you go a generation or so before her, my grandfather, when he went to the University of Maryland School of Law, all of his fees were like $200. Today, that would be about $3,000, but it actually costs more than $40,000.

And so, you know, this is what we were doing back when we were just deciding—you know, we had just decided to make high schools free. We also decided to make college free. And we’ve got to get back to it, because that’s what allowed us to move forward so, so fast in creating the future on this planet, from computers to the net. We made sure that great schools, whether it was City University of New York or UC Berkeley or University of Maryland, were free. And we’ve got to get back to that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, De’Jaun, you were raising money to go to school. Ben contributed, what, $30,000 to ensure that you got this college education. As the news was revealed, Ben Smith—Robert Smith just announcing this in his graduation address, which I’m pretty sure probably most people were not listening to at that moment, if—having been to many graduations, and then suddenly it sort of trickles through the crowd. What does this mean for your college friends? Also, you know, afterwards, we read articles and Facebook posts of students who were at Morehouse but, like in many situations around the country, had to leave because they just couldn’t keep up with their payments, and now hearing that their college friends who were graduating were going to have those debts forgiven.

DE’JAUN DAVIS-CORREIA: I mean, like I said, when he first mentioned it within his speech, you know, me and my friend Chris Davids, we were sitting right next to each other, and I—me and him both just looked at each other like in awe, like, “OK. Did he just say what he really just said?” Because at first, you know, sometimes you hear something, you go, “OK, nah, that wasn’t it.” Because it was really hot out there, you know, for graduation. And so, we was like, “OK, maybe.” And then he reinstated it. We was like, “OK.” You know, but then our next—our mind automatically went to, “OK, well, how, when and where? Kind of, you know, like, how is it going to happen? When? And, you know, is it through FAFSA, Morehouse? But, you know, that’s to be determined later on down the line.

But back to the students, a lot of us, we’re prepared throughout our school, our school year, especially at Morehouse, to be able to handle the afterschool, you know, or postgraduate lifestyle. Some of us, you know, take those—I would say, those things that we learn, and actually start adhering them to our lives before graduation. Some of us, you know, not so much doesn’t want to do that until graduation. And so, I just feel like, you know, if you were preparing yourself definitely up until graduation and you already kind of had your ducks in a row before going into having your debt paid off, you’re even at a more advantage, going forward, you know, with the step forth in life. Rather than having one step in the door, you kind of have two now. And, you know, for students who didn’t really—well, are still trying to figure things out after graduation, because they’re having their debts paid off now, like I said, depending on the time frame of that situation, a lot of these students can definitely have a leg forward, because they have the time now, you know, after graduation, to find a job and get themselves together, rather than being pressured to have to pay this large-sum bill that will come, for some students, four to six months after graduation. So, you know, like I said, a lot of us, we’ve been preparing for it. We just have to start taking the things that we’ve been taught, and just really apply them to life and grab life by the horns right now, and just don’t be afraid.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times had some interesting questions, Ben Jealous. Among them, are all student loans included? Does the pledge include loans taken out by the graduates’ parents? What about gifts from home equity loans? Expected to run well into the millions of dollars, the pledge will not benefit those who never made it to graduation because their crushing debts forced them to withdraw before they earned a degree. Your thoughts on what this means?


AMY GOODMAN: And in your case, where you help out as a dear friend, do you get helped out, bailed out, as well?

BEN JEALOUS: No, I mean, of course not. And, you know, I think, look, the most important thing here is the way that it’s going to change these young people’s lives and the way that it’s going to change our country and even the local economy. You know, what you’ll see in the short term is that these young people are able to pursue their dreams. What you’ll see in the midterm is that they will buy homes sooner, they’ll buy new cars sooner, than peers who are still saddled with debt. And what you’ll see long term is that these graduates will go on to do great things of their own, even great acts of charity.

What this needs to inspire all of us to do is to take a moment and to look at how we spend money in this country, how we spend our public dollars, and to recognize that what’s being done for this one class, we could do for the entire country, if we just got our priorities straight, if we stopped investing so much in mass incarceration and we got back to the values that made our country great, and actually invest in the public—you know, invest our public dollars in making sure that all of our young people can go to college and graduate and come out debt-free. And so, what Mr. Smith did is huge for this class, but it also sends a huge message to our country that we’ve got to get our priorities straight again.

AMY GOODMAN: You were speaking right at the end of Part 1 about the difference between private and state schools, Ben.

BEN JEALOUS: Yeah. You know, when you—how do I say this? When public university tuitions go up, private university tuition goes up even more. And so, when you have a private school like Morehouse, one of the ways that you ultimately make sure that their tuition gets in line with what people can actually afford is to make sure that the public universities get get back to being tuition-free. We have to make sure that our young people can afford to go to school. It also means, quite frankly, that we have to look at Pell Grants and how we increase them, and ultimately how we lower the debt burden on young people at all universities. But it starts with having our public universities be tuition-free once more.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both very much for being with us. I know, De’Jaun, you have to race off to work as an engineer. The new graduate from Morehouse College, 2019, De’Jaun Davis-Correia, thanks so much for joining us from Baltimore.

DE’JAUN DAVIS-CORREIA: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: And Ben Jealous, former national president of the NAACP, gubernatorial candidate in Maryland. Ben, your thoughts on the man who beat you, Larry Hogan, possibly taking on President Trump within the Republican Party, running for president?

BEN JEALOUS: You know, look, Larry Hogan is a real competitor. He should take on Trump. Trump needs real competition. You know, with that said, I have a feeling Larry Hogan might be trying to just raise his profile so he can run for Senate. And I would not support him for that.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you run for Senate?

BEN JEALOUS: It’s a long way from now. I’m just building my tech firm back in Baltimore, out here in San Francisco trying to get that all going.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you so much to both of you for being with us. Ben Jealous and De’Jaun Davis-Correia. This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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