When thousands of student "aid" administrators, who were gathered in New Orleans for an industry conference, threw themselves a parade on Monday, they were confronted with something they likely were not expecting: a counter-spectacle of anti-debt campaigners demanding "free higher education for all."
The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators represents "20,000 student financial assistance professionals at approximately 3,000 colleges, universities" and claims to advocate "public policies that increase student access and success." Their conference is sponsored by numerous big banks and student loan companies.
Organizers with Debt Collective, which is a new debtors' union that formed as an offshoot of Strike Debt, charge that the association is part of an industry that profits from student debt while ignoring the most obvious and practical solution for increasing access and success: tuition-free education. The campaigners argue that "aid" is not aid at all when it saddles students with behemoth loans.
So, dozens of campaigners decided to take that message to the gathering of aid administrators. On Monday evening, thousands of conference attendees converged to cap off a day of panels and workshops with their own private Mardis Gras parade through the streets of New Orleans.
Their procession was met with a stream of Debt Collective marchers, who blasted music, chanted, and waved fans with the message of free education.
Michael Adorno-Miranda, student debt striker and organizer with Debt Collective, told Common Dreams, "These guys are getting together to determine how student aid is funded, divided up, and used. We wanted to spread awareness about our campaign, shake things up, and let people know that a loan is not aid."
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Adorno-Miranda said there was significant interest in the action from community members and passers-by. When it came to participants in the conference, however, it was a different story. "They seemed to be kind of confused, and the element of surprise was definitely in our hands," he said, adding that, at one point, a conference goer attempted to whip Debt Collective protesters with her Mardi Gras beads.
The protest was not the only colorful action Debt Collective staged that day. Also on Monday, the anti-debt campaigners pulled off a creative hoax by falsely announcing they had won a coveted award from the conference for their proposal to "end student debt for good by making higher education tuition free for all." While their receipt of the prize was a prank, the proposal was real and can be read here.
"You may be asking how we can afford to completely fund public education," said the organization in a blog post that falsely announced the award. "Our research shows that after stripping off the amount that the government already spends to subsidize higher education—including at predatory for-profit institutions—the total amount of new money necessary would be as little as $15 billion a year. Fifteen billion is a fraction of one percent of yearly government spending; it is merely a rounding error in the federal budget, less than the government currently spends on tax breaks for just 20 corporations."
Debt Collective and affiliates with Occupy Wall Street have already succeeded in significantly shifting the debate over education funding models through creative resistance campaigns, including collective refusal to pay student debts. The campaign Rolling Jubilee grabbed headlines last year when it purchased and abolished more than $4 million in student debt.
Adorno-Miranda, who graduated with more than $37,000 in debt with what he says is a useless degree from the for-profit Everest College in Colorado Springs, emphasized that the momentum of the anti-debt movement will only grow from here: "We are going to continue to outreach, convene, strategize, and move forward with the next thing."