“You’re going to have a generation of young people enslaved to the credit card industry, enslaved to the student debt industry,” Justin Butler, a student at George Washington University Law School, said as he marched to the Department of Education, having just left a protest outside the private student lender Sallie Mae. “We just keep piling it on and piling it on and eventually it’s going to blow up in our faces just like the housing crisis did,” he told TheFightBack.
March 1 was billed as a National Day of Action to Defend Public Education. In D.C., around a hundred student activists gathered at Occupy DC at McPherson Square before taking to the street for a lively march on Sallie Mae and DOE. The action was organized by the DC Student Coalition for Education, which describes itself as “a coalition of students in the DC area in solidarity with the Occupy movement looking to change the problems with education that stem from income inequality and other causes.”
Outside DOE, students used Occupy Wall Street’s trademark “mic check” to deliver the Students’ Declaration of Grievances and Demands, which begins with these words: “We the students hold these truths to be self-evident: that education is a fundamental right.”
“I can promise you this document will be brought to [Education Secretary Arne Duncan] directly today,” Tim Tuten, DOE director of special projects and events, replied to students using the mic check. “I hope that we can have a response to you in the next week, or [by] March 9,” said Tuten, who stayed for the entire protest and engaged with students, opting not to hide behind the bank of heavily armed officers guarding the DOE steps.
“I want an answer from the secretary,” a young veteran said to Tuten. “I enlisted in the army at 17 because I come from a poor family [and wanted to attend] college. I went to Iraq in 2008. I still can’t afford to go to college. How many of our soldiers have passed away to pay for college?”
“Young people in America should be able to pursue higher education to achieve their dreams without worrying that this decision will devastate their financial futures,” said Lindsay Schubiner, who used the mic check to read a statement on behalf of her boss, Congressman Hansen Clarke from Detroit. Clarke, who will soon introduce legislation to forgive some student debt and create a student loan borrower bill of rights, said via Schubiner, “Graduates should never be forced to choose between paying for their groceries or their rent and defaulting on their loans because of unemployment.”
Clarke applauded the work of Stef Gray, who’s petition at change.org calling for Sallie Mae to drop its forbearance fee has garnered 150,000 signatures. Three weeks ago, Gray delivered a box of 76,000 signatures to Sallie Mae and Thursday she was back in front of the private student lender’s office. “Sallie Mae over the past decade has spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress to strip away vital consumer protections and refinancing rights to categorize student debt differently from all [other] types of debt,” said Gray, who runs the site occupystudentdebt.com. TheFightBack first interviewed Gray at Occupy Wall Street in October, before her story and activism spread across the country and was profiled in the New York Times and Huffington Post, among other news outlets.
“I am heartsick to hear students coming out of school with over $100,000 in debt, of which perhaps $50,000 will go in interest to financial institutions like Sallie Mae,” Cathy Schneider, a professor at American University, told students outside DOE. She continued, “[Education] used to be a way of diminishing class inequalities… [but] increasingly only the rich can afford to go to university.”
Occupy Student Debt, Oct. 25, 2011