PORTLAND, Maine — Members of OccupyMaine gathered in Monument Square Wednesday to recognize what student protesters across the country called “Trillion-dollar Day,” as student debt in America reached the 10-digit mark.
The occupiers — who as a group have remained active since the city-ordered dispersal of their 4-month-old tent community in Lincoln Park in early February — blamed the growing student debt bubble on skyrocketing tuition costs and “predatory” lenders.
“Some people in my parents’ generation don’t understand why we can’t just ‘get jobs and pay for it,’ but tuition rates since 1979 have gone up by more than 800 percent,” University of Southern Maine student Jacob Lowry, who has participated in Occupy events in Portland and Washington, D.C., said Wednesday. “There’s a misconception when you’re talking about student loan debt that we’re asking for handouts. … What we’re talking about is a more equitable society in which everyone can afford an education.”
Doug Bowen, who came from New Hampshire to take part in the Portland demonstration, said he went to college more than 40 years ago. He said his peers who criticize today’s student protesters overlook how fortunate they were to have paid the low tuition rates of past decades.
“I graduated in 1968 and I don’t think I knew anybody at my school who graduated with debt,” he told the Bangor Daily News. “I can’t imagine what life would have been like if I had 20 years worth of loan payments after I graduated.
Louise Somlyo, who said she graduated from college in 1967, agreed.
“I was able to pay my way through school working at the post office in the summers,” she said. “I graduated without debt. Back then, you could pay your way through school.”
The Portland demonstration came as the issue continued to move onto center stage nationwide. Student loan debt in recent months surpassed credit card debt and automobile loans on the list of financial albatrosses for Americans, and financial analysts have feared it could be the country’s next economic catastrophe at a time when the recession is still fresh in the rear view.
President Barack Obama this week criss-crossed the nation visiting universities and advocating for measures to control the costs of higher education, most immediately by urging Congress to renew low federal Stafford loan interest rates before they’re scheduled to double on July 1.
“The key point here is, is that in America, higher education can’t be a luxury,” Obama told student reporters during a conference call while traveling from the University of North Carolina to the University of Colorado on Tuesday. “It’s an economic imperative that every family has got to be able to afford.”
The president in his college stops touted his effort last fall to accelerate a cap on student loan payments at no more than 10 percent of a graduate’s monthly income, as well as extending Pell grants to 3 million more students and signing a tax credit to offset tuition costs for middle-class families.
But in an address in Monument Square delivered Wednesday by event organizer Rachel Lyn Rumson, whose comments were echoed loudly by supporters in Occupy’s “human microphone,” the president’s efforts were described as inadequate.
“The administration … is trying to put a Band-Aid on a tumor and saying, ‘Go home, it’ll be OK,’” Rumson said.
Rumson said one-third of student loans are reported to be in default, but the figure doesn’t include graduates who fall behind in loan payments more than two years removed from school.
Val Hart said Wednesday his daughter, a first-year student at Wooster College in Ohio, is facing $22,000 in student debt upon graduation. He acknowledged that while it’s a daunting amount, it’s lower than the recently reported average of more than $25,000 in debt facing most college graduates today.
But he worried that his daughter will be forced to settle for a job she dislikes after graduation just to seek bigger paychecks.
“[Heavy student loan debts] are going to be keeping some students from pursuing their dreams,” Hart said.