AMHERST — As 100 or so prospective students and families made their way past the University of Massachusetts Amherst student union Thursday, a circle of current students wearing signs with messages such as, “You are not a loan,” and “Thanks for my UMa$$ive debt” chanted at the top of their lungs, “Education is a right. Fight, fight, fight!”
“By the time I graduate, I’m going to have $87,000 in debt. What kind of a future can I have with that much debt over my head?” participant Story Young, 25, told a reporter. “I did the math today: I’ll be in debt for 16 years. So I won’t be free of debt until I’m 41.”
Young, originally from Hanson and now an Amherst resident, was one of about 40 students from UMass Amherst and other local colleges who took part in a demonstration called “Wear Their Debt,” in which participants wore signs around their necks specifying how much they currently owe in student loans. The action was organized by the Center for Education Policy & Advocacy, the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, and Public Higher Education Network Of Massachusetts, all advocacy groups geared toward student interests.
Similar rallies took place at nine other colleges and universities nationwide, including UMass Boston, Keene State College and the University of New Hampshire in Durham, to bring awareness to the issue of student debt and resolutions calling for debt-free college proposed by Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Katherine Clark are both sponsors of the resolutions in their respective chambers.
Young’s sign said $76,036, but that figure, she noted, did not include interest.
Demonstrators first gathered inside the student union, where they passed out signs before standing in a large circle outside. One carried a giant beach ball, custom-designed to look like a ball and chain, with “DEBT” in white letters. The hour-long demonstration consisted of chants, several student speakers and faculty speaker Joel Saxe.
Young, who is majoring in social thought and political economy and journalism, started studying at UMass in 2007. After her junior year, she said she was forced to put her education on hold because she could not afford the cost of attending school, and could not get a loan without a co-signer. At that point, she said she had $56,000 in debt. So she waited three and a half years until she was 24 and could qualify as financially independent.
“I wasn’t ready to drop out with that much debt for nothing,” she told fellow demonstrators at the rally.
After being away for that time, she said it was necessary to take some classes over, so she is now in her second year as a senior and fifth year of college.
UMass sophomore Sarah Fishman said Thursday’s rally was among the first times she has spoken openly about her debt, which is about $40,000 and climbing. She said many of her friends come from wealthier backgrounds and she has been uncomfortable talking about her own student debt.
Fishman, a 19-year-old psychology major from Sandwich, said seeing so many others in a similar situation to herself was surprising.
“I think this is a serious problem that people don’t talk about this on campus,” she said. “I think that it’s a problem that people are not seeking their master’s or doctorate programs because they can’t, because of their loans. I think it’s a problem that people have to work at waitressing jobs and can’t get a job for their major.”
Fishman said she also sees the lack of socioeconomic diversity at UMass as a problem, and one fueled by poorer students steering clear of the college for fear of accumulating debt. That lack of diversity in turn helps account for the lack of conversation around the issue, she added.
While Fishman said she applied to other schools in and out of Massachusetts, she knew in advance she would attend UMass because she believed the other schools were out of her financial reach.
Nevertheless, Fishman said she expects to graduate with a mountain of debt. “By the end of it, I’ll have accumulated $80,000 plus interest — it will probably be closer to $100,000,” she said.
Filipe Carvalho, a finance and economics major and one of the organizers of the rally, had a sign around his neck that read “$20,000+.” The 20-year-old UMass junior from Worcester said he was not sure exactly how much he owes.
Carvalho said he hoped that Thursday’s rally would demonstrate that student debt affects real people. He told participants to keep their signs with them and engage with people.
“The idea is to wear your debt the entire day, so we’re not stopping here,” Carvalho said. “We want people to ask these questions and have these conversations.”
One student, Aja Gaskins, would like to have attended but could not because of conflicts with one of her three jobs, she noted in a statement read to the crowd by student Varshini Prakash.
“I am a first-generation, black, queer honors student, and I have three jobs,” Gaskins wrote in the statement.
She said that while people told her that scholarships and loans would pay for her education, she has found that each semester brings uncertainty about whether she will be able to remain.
“I am supposed to be a student,” she wrote. “I came to this university to learn and to contribute to my community and I can barely focus on my academics. I struggle to eat and sleep enough to function throughout the day sometimes.”
Rather than her academic achievements being the proof she deserves to be at the university, Gaskins wrote that she is forced to prove it by how much money she can earn.
Prakash, a 22-year-old UMass senior from Acton, said she is fortunate in that she will graduate debt-free.
“I stand here in solidarity with the people — with my friends and my peers — who have to deal with debt every day,” she said.
If students did not have to be paying off student debt into their 30s and 40s, they would be happier and more productive members of society, Prakash said.
“I don’t think debt is ever OK,” she said.
Prakash said her family immigrated to the United States from India and they were able to get jobs and save enough money to pay for her to go to college without debt. But things could have gone differently, she said.
“It’s not a result of individual pulling up of the boot straps, it’s a societal problem,” she said about debt.
Carvalho expressed confidence that the rally was having a positive effect. “You can’t start a movement without people talking about it,” he said. “These rallies make things more personal.”