Students at 110 college campuses across the country planned to walk out of class Thursday to march for an affordable education.
The aptly named Million Student March has been months in the making, inspired by national campaigns to boost minimum wages, explained Beth Huang, a coordinator for the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP), an initiative of a labor union and foundation-funded group called Jobs with Justice.
“The problems of skyrocketing college costs and low wages are linked together and result in poor economic mobility for people who graduate with the burden of student debt,” said Huang, who is working with the student organizers. “The march is about mobilizing students across the country to shape the national conversation about what college costs look like today, especially in an age of student debt, low wages and high tuition.”
Thousands of students have over the years waived picket signs and chanted slogans in support of raising minimum wages for low-income workers, learning valuable lessons of organizing that they are now applying to their own cause. They are demanding free tuition at public universities, the cancellation of all student debt and a $15 minimum wage for all campus workers.
The high cost of college has come up along the presidential campaign trail. Republican contenders Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are said to be working on their own policy plans, while all of the Democratic candidates have proposed some form of debt-free public higher education.
The message has resonated with millennials, who have endured soaring college costs that forced many to take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Roughly 70 percent of students borrow to pay for college and graduate with an average debt of $29,000. While many have no trouble repaying the money, there is a growing consensus that students shouldn’t have to be mired in debt to get a degree.
A Harvard University Institute of Politics poll found that 57 percent of people under 30 believe that student debt is a major problem for young people.
White House hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been one of the most vocal advocates for lowering the cost of college on the campaign trail, proposing a cost-share agreement in which states would pony up $1 for every $2 the federal government invests in higher education.
Something Sanders said — about how to bring student debt to an end — was what gave organizers the idea for the march.
During an interview with Katie Couric in June, Sanders said, “If a million young people march on Washington [and 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.”
Elan Axelbank, a third year student at Northeastern University in Boston, said Sanders’ comment gave students a pathway. Asking broke college students to travel to Washington seemed like a stretch, but he and his co-organizer, Keely Mullen, figured students could easily take to the quads in protest.
Although Sanders inspired the movement, organizers say they’re not backing him — or any other candidate — because they want to encourage a broad coalition. They created a Facebook page and Web site, calling students across the country to action. Axelbank said the response was overwhelming. The group launched a central organizing committee to flesh out the demands and plan the day of action.
“The three demands were designed to bring as many people into this movement as possible and meet the needs of future students and past students,” Axelbank said. “There are people who are 30 with $40,000 in student debt, and because of that they haven’t been able to buy a car or home. It’s difficult to settle down if you’re still paying off that debt.”
On Thursday, students used Twitter, with the hastag #MillionStudentMarch, to get the word out: