Students Strike to Protest College Costs, Lack of Opportunities for Grads

At more than 100 schools across the country, students spoke out about crippling debts and poor pay for campus workers.

Students attend a demonstration calling for lower tuition at Hunter College in New York City on Nov. 12. (Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Nov 12, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

College students from Massachusetts to Washington walked out of classrooms and took to the campus quad Thursday, pushing back against twin economic threats: the high cost of a college degree and the low starting wages paid to schools’ blue-collar employees.

The goal of the Million Student March, organizers say, is to demonstrate the need for sweeping reforms to make higher education free, forgive debt for those who owe five-figure student loans, and implement a $15-an-hour minimum salary for campus workers who landscape, prepare dining-hall meals, and generally keep things running. Protests took place at 116 schools coast to coast, backed by local labor unions and influential liberal activists including Noam Chomsky, said Kyle Butts, a University of California, Santa Barbara, student and member of the Million Student March’s central organizing committee.

Photos and videos posted on social media showed organized protesters at a broad range of campuses—public schools such Texas State University and private ones such as DePaul University in Chicago, as well as community colleges and two-year schools.

Strong action is necessary, Butts said, because skyrocketing tuition “limits access to higher education for all students.” He said the march on his campus drew 1,500 participants and featured a “Wall of Debt,” a wall on one of the buildings where students and graduates posted how much they owe.

The debt “was constantly above $40,000, constantly above $60,000,” Butts said. Given that college is a requirement for most jobs, he added, success “is not [based on] our drive and work ethic. It’s our inheritance.”

Saddled with debt, college graduates “can’t pursue their dreams” but instead need a steady job just to repay loans, he said.

Protesters at UC Santa Barbara and other campuses linked arms with members of the Fight for 15 movement, which is pushing to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour from the current minimum of $7.25.

“College tuition and the cost of textbooks place an inherent strain” on young people trying to get ahead, said Robert Ribaudo, a student at South Seattle College. A military veteran, Ribaudo is the college’s student body president; he helped organize the campus’ 300-person rally.

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Even though he gets a GI Bill stipend, Ribaudo said, the $1,000 a month the government gives him doesn’t cover the cost of his textbooks, some of which cost $300 apiece.

“I cannot afford textbooks. There needs to be a change,” he said.

The evidence backs him up: Multiple studies have shown that as college costs skyrocketed, state and federal tuition assistance plunged. Pell Grants, for example, once covered as much as 70 percent of a student’s tuition; now they pay for just 30 percent.

At the same time, the Great Recession took a wrecking ball to family wealth, wiping out college investment plans as well as home equity—the chief source of collateral for student loans. A recent Pew Center for Research survey found that in 2012, a record 69 percent of all U.S. students borrowed money for college, and the amount borrowed more than doubled over two decades, from $12,434 for the class of 1992–93 to $26,885 for the class of 2011–12.

While critics on Twitter derided the march and the notion of free college, Ribaudo said he thinks a tuition-free education is a logical step.

Hundreds of years ago, state and local governments decided to make kindergarten and secondary school free for every child, an investment that paid off with an educated citizenry and workforce. The same thinking should apply with college, Ribaudo said, particularly because economists predict that most well-paying jobs will require at least some postsecondary education.

Amen, said Butts, noting that some parents with kids in college are still paying off their own student-loan debt. “It’s absolutely ridiculous,” he said.

Ultimately, Butts said, the walkout delivered a “very, very clear” message to the powers that be and showed that student activism isn’t dead.

“Our goal for this march is our demands had to enter the national dialogue,” he said, adding that he expects Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton—who have competing plans to make college affordable—to face questions about the movement in the debate on Saturday.