Million Student March aims to fight for free college tuition and cancellation of student debt

On a recent Tuesday at the City College of New York in Manhattan, a handful of students, activists and professors sat in a small circle casually planning a revolution.

Surrounded by other students typing on their laptops in a basement lounge a few escalator rides down from street level, the group’s conversation flowed easily from the mundane — how many fliers each could hand out in 15 minutes — to their lofty goals: The cancellation of all student debt, free tuition at public colleges and universities, and getting campus workers a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

“We expect this to be a long struggle,” James Hoff, an English professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College, and the group’s organizer, said matter-of-factly.

The City College faction is one of about 100 on campuses across the country planning to take to the streets on Nov. 12 to call attention to the growth in student debt, cost of higher education and depressed wages, particularly for campus employees. The effort, dubbed the Million Student March, got its start earlier this year when a handful of activists across the country decided it was time to create a grass-roots campaign surrounding the issues many politicians, consumer advocates and even economists have talked about, but struggled to change.

“It’s a network of students and former students that have been hearing a call for this movement around the eradication of student debt,” is how one of the national organizers, Keely Mullen, a fourth-year student at Northeastern University who expects to graduate with about $150,000 in debt, describes the upcoming day of action.

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The protest is the latest front in the fight against the pressure student debt is increasingly placing on Americans, particularly young people. Presidential candidates have offered their own proposals for curbing the problem; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) proposed a march of 1 million students in Washington, D.C. earlier this year. Legal advocates are working through the court system to make it easier to discharge student loans in bankruptcy. And then there are more grass roots efforts, like the Corinthian Debt Strike, a group of more than 100 former students of the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges who have vowed not to pay off their student loans, arguing they were taken out under fraudulent circumstances.

What makes this effort slightly different is that student debt and college affordability are really “baked into” broader issues of economic fairness, said Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst at Demos, who focuses on student debt.

“You’ve seen over the years a lot of movements around job quality and wages and other social justice or academic justice issues, student debt is now really embedded in that,” he said. “It’s different now primarily because there are so many more people with student debt.”

More than 40 million Americans are holding $1.2 trillion in student loan debt and one out of four borrowers is struggling to pay it off. And so it’s no wonder that what started as a germ of an idea shared by a handful of activists scattered around the country has turned into a national campaign fueled largely by Facebook and other social media.

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The organization is modeling itself in part after another movement for economic justice, the effort to raise pay for fast food workers, which started as a small gathering of workers walking off the job, and turned into a national effort with periodic protests in 100 or more cities and even resulted in a $15 minimum wage in some cities.

The fast food movement “serves as an example for how we can achieve the concessions that we’re raising when it comes to student debt and when it comes to tuition,” said Rami Eitan, a 31-year-old activist who got involved in the protests through his work with Socialist Alternative, a left-leaning advocacy organization.

But it isn’t only the fast food movement’s tactics that are inspiring, it’s their goal as well, the student debt protesters say. The fight to improve college affordability and lower student debt is a natural outgrowth of the fast food movement’s efforts to improve economic justice.

“You have this weird perfect storm of events happening where education costs are going up, tuition is going up, people are forced to take out more loans, but at the same time the jobs that they’re working at are paying less in real dollar value than they have before,” said Hoff, who himself has six figures of student loan debt from the several years he spent in school working toward his Ph.D.

And given that a college degree is essentially a requirement for decent employment, it doesn’t make sense for the government to stop offering free education at the high school level, said Alexa Lempel, a 23-year-old City College student pursuing a master’s degree in electrical engineering. Lempel describes her lack of education debt as a sort of “by the grace of god” situation. A scholarship covered her undergraduate education and she said she’s not sure she would have been able to attend had it not been for that.

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She’s spent her free time putting up fliers advertising the protest and meeting with different student organizations to get their support, in the hopes that one day other students can easily have the opportunity she did. “The free tuition point is so, so important in terms of making college accessible for everyone,” she said. Lempel is footing the bill for graduate school.

But whether enough other people agree to make it a reality remains to be seen. It’s still unclear whether the protest will capture much media attention or draw in supporters who aren’t already involved with the cause. Even if a million people don’t show up in cities and on campuses across the country to protest later this week, the march can still serve other, more practical purposes, Mullen said. “My hope is that what comes out of the day of action is an actual organizational structure that can work to implement the demands nationally and locally.”

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