More than 100 college campuses are hosting student marches and rallies today to fight for the right to a free college education, the forgiveness of student debt, and a higher minimum wage for all campus workers.
The campaign, which organizers are calling the Million Student March, was expected to draw a crowd of upwards of 1,000 at its largest rally at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where unions were set to bolster the ranks of student and faculty members. Organizers said that 110 to 120 other campuses were also hosting gatherings, including citywide events in Boston and New York.
Today's debt and tuition rallies come on the heels of a string of protests in recent weeks. A movement at the University of Missouri forced the resignation of the school's president, and the national campaign Fight for $15 held large rallies across the country on Tuesday, many of which were led or bolstered by student activists.
Keely Mullen, a senior at Northeastern University in Boston who plans to become a teacher, said she helped organize today's demonstration because she fears that she will never be able to pay back her $150,000 in student loan debt. She thinks that if students ban together, they can change the staggering costs of college education for everyone.
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Mullen was part of a group of campus organizers who last year fought for higher pay for staff members on Northeastern's campus. They were further encouraged by comments Bernie Sanders made over the summer about the power of organizing to bring about change.
"He said if a million students march on Washington for free college, that's the only way we're going to win. That's a really inspiring thing to hear," she said. "We live in an age where people think we can vote social change into office, and Bernie Sanders, who's running for office, is saying, 'No, that's not how it happens. It happens when people take to the streets.' "
She and a small network of student activists created a Facebook page over the summer called Million Student March and began organizing with campus leaders around the country. Before long, they were flooded with requests to participate. They now have 200 campus organizers, and the overarching organizing committee includes representatives from the United States Student Association, the Student Labor Action Project, College Students for Bernie, and other groups.
Mullen hopes that today's march will lead to the creation of "independent student unions" on campuses around the country that can work separately as well as together to demand changes on their campuses.
Kyle Butts, a 19-year-old second-year student at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said he expected more than 1,000 people at his noontime rally on campus, including staff, faculty, students, administrators, and representatives of unions. He had been working with some 40 organizers on campus and across the UC system to plan the day of action.
"In the most basic sense, high public education should be a right for all students," he said.
Butts praised the Million Student March for trying to tie the Fight for $15 together with the campaign over student debt and expensive tuition.
"I love that it unifies students and workers behind one cause," he said. "Workers supported students and vice versa."
Originally from Connecticut, Butts arrived at the university with a slew of Advanced Placement credits in math and has been able to meet his degree requirements ahead of schedule. He'll be wrapping up at the end of the academic year, saving himself some $60,000 in tuition that he would have had to pay had he taken the traditional four-year path to a degree. Butts said that if cost weren't a concern, he would have switched his major from math to global studies and spent the extra two years learning more, but he didn't want to take on any extra debt if he didn't have to.
"We certainly support increased public funding for higher education," said a University of California spokesperson when asked about the protest at the campus in Santa Barbara, who also noted that the university has not increased tuition since 2011 and has no plans to do so until 2017.
Both Mullen and Butts said that political candidates have taken note of the growing demand for changes to higher education.
"People who make decisions in this country aren't going to be able to ignore it," Mullins said. "We've already seen the success of an approach like that this time around. Hillary Clinton is the most right-leaning Democrat running, and yet because of pressure from below for her to have a fair education platform, she's been forced to shift a little to the left."
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Clinton said in August that students across America should not have to take out loans to go to state schools if they cannot afford tuition. She also said that community colleges should be free, and has pledged to bring down interest rates on student loan debt and create a program in which students pay a percentage of their income to pay down their debt, as opposed to a flat rate.
"I've met young people that can't move out of their parents' homes," she said in an interview with Lena Dunham's Lenny magazine. "They have dreams to start their own business; they can't afford to do it. They can't even afford to get married. So we are not only squashing their hopes and dreams, we're hurting the economy."
Sanders went a step further, saying state colleges should be free, arguing that the federal government should not profit off of student loans, and pledging to significantly lower interest rates on student loans. According to his platform, all of this would be paid for by a tax on "Wall Street speculators."
Though Mullen and Butts agree with Sanders, they understand the resistance to their position.
"People say it shouldn't be on the taxpayer to pay for other people to have a good education, and it's the student's fault for choosing a school outside of their price range," Mullen said. "I understand the argument, but the reality is that the onus of this crisis won't be put on taxpayers, it'll be put on the 1 percent of the 1 percent of population hoarding the wealth, by taxing those people."
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen