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"The stress alone of having a lot of debt contributes to people's poor health." (Photo: @socialistaltchi/Twitter)

Fighting Back, Students Rise Nationwide to Demand Debt-Free Higher Ed

"The United States is the richest country in the world, yet students have to take on crippling debt in order to get a college education."

Deirdre Fulton

Galvanized by a key plank in Bernie Sanders' presidential platform, current and former students from hundreds of colleges coast to coast are holding walk-outs, rallies, and marches on Thursday to call for tuition-free public college, a cancellation of all student debt, and a $15 minimum wage for all campus workers. 

"The United States is the richest country in the world, yet students have to take on crippling debt in order to get a college education," the movement's organizers said in a statement on their website. "We need change, and change starts in the streets when the people demand it."

Noting that more than 40 million Americans share a total of $1.2 trillion in student debt and 58 percent of that is held by the poorest 25 percent of Americans, the organizers chastise "establishment politicians" for failing to take action in the face of what they call an "urgent crisis."

"Our country has abandoned its responsibility to educate future generations," said Keely Mullen, a Northeastern University junior and an organizer for 15 Now. "Today we are dealing with a curriculum that reflects a corporate agenda, outrageous university tuitions and fees, massive student debt, and a K-12 public education system under attack by budget cuts, charter schools, standardized tests, and the school-to-prison-pipeline."

Mullen, who said she will graduate with approximately $150,000 in student loans, added: "We cannot stand by any longer while our education system is destroyed from within. It's time to take action."

According to ThinkProgress, the decentralized Million Student March day of action was "sparked by comments that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders made earlier this year about the need for a movement of student activists calling for a plan to end national student loan debt, which swelled to more than $1 trillion dollars earlier this year."

"If a million young people march on Washington they [say] to the Republican leadership, we know what’s going on, and you better vote to deal with student debt. You better vote to make public universities and colleges tuition free, that’s when it will happen," Sanders said during an interview with Yahoo's Katie Couric in June.

Sanders' remarks "inspired student organizers to create a Facebook page to start planning the type of march that he was referencing," ThinkProgress reports—and the idea quickly caught fire.

The American Prospect adds:

Thursday’s march does not bring a million students to the nation’s capital, but it does boast crowds of anywhere from several hundred at the University of Utah to several thousand at the City College of New York. Coordinated across more than 120 schools in 33 states, the action marks the first national campaign combining the demands of students, faculty, and campus employees.

At the University of California - Berkeley, rallying students will be joined by hundreds of nurses from Northern California, according to a press statement from the California Nurses Association (CNA).

"We are joining the students because we see firsthand how the student debt crisis impacts the health of our patients," said CNA boardmember and registered nurse Katy Roemer. "When they are overburdened by debt they can't pay for medication, they can't pay insurance premiums, co-pays or deductibles so they delay and avoid treatment that they need. The stress alone of having a lot of debt contributes to people's poor health."

CNA co-president Malinda Markowitz also cited Sanders' solution to the student debt crisis—the College for All Act (S.1373) that the presidential hopeful introduced in May. 

"Wall Street created the economic crisis that devastated education funding and made tuitions skyrocket," said Markowitz. "This bill calls on Wall Street to pay its fair share of taxes, in the form of a wafer thin financial transaction tax (aka Robin Hood Tax), so that all students can attend public colleges and universities for free."

The day of action comes in a week that has already seen the largest-ever low-wage worker strikes and vibrant on-campus organizing for racial justice.


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