Hundreds of members of the University of Massachusetts community packed the Student Union Ballroom Tuesday afternoon to demonstrate support for public sector workers, unions and alternative solutions to funding higher education without increasing financial burdens upon students.
The UMass event showed its solidarity with a national event and call-to-action titled, “Fightback USA: A National Teach-in on Austerity, Debt & Corporate Greed.”
“The teach-in seeks to help young people across America understand how the recent actions undertaken by the brave citizens of Wisconsin are the key to turning the tide away from increasing inequality and misery, and toward the development of a sustainable and healthy American society in the 21st century,” said Christine Kelly, an organizer of the national event. “The teach-in seeks to infuse the fight back in the states with the energy and commitment of American youth whose future hangs in the balance.”
While the national event was held in New York City, organizers called for campuses across the country to hold local events. According to the event’s website, over 266 campuses were set to participate.
UMass community members organized a local teach-in to participate, and the event was sponsored by over a dozen academic departments at UMass, as well as local unions and student groups.
Interested students and supporters filled the ballroom’s seats, leaving many attendees with seats on the floor and standing-room only positions as they listened to professors, students and community organizers discuss issues such as taxes and economic hierarchies, single-payer health care, student fees and media coverage of higher education.
In a short speech titled, “WTF: Where’s the Funding?” Melissa Urban, an organizer on the state-level for the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy, discussed the issue of rising student debt.
“America now has more student loan debt than credit card debt. In June 2010, America had $829.785 billion in student loan debt … At the same time, the Federal Reserve cites credit card debt at $826.5 billion,” she said. “Since this time, student loan debt has been growing. In a bad job economy where students are having difficulty finding employment when they graduate, that’s like taking out a mortgage only without getting a house.”
Dan Clawson, a professor in the sociology department of UMass and a former president of the Massachusetts Society of Professors union, discussed the reasons why student debt has reached such alarming levels.
Clawson compared the cost of higher education 30 years ago to the cost of education at the University today.
“If the cost of a public university had gone up at the same rate as general inflation, it would cost you $2,400 to attend the University,” he said. “In fact, the tuition for one year for an in-state student is $11,732. That is more than four times as much.”
The rising cost of tuition means it is inevitable for more students to take on debt when going to college, according to Clawson. “In the 1970s and 1980s a student could work 10 hours-a-week at a minimum wage job and earn enough to pay for their tuition and fees. Today, you’d have to work more than 29 hours a week, and work more if you still wanted to eat, have a place to sleep or be able to afford clothes,” said Clawson.
The sociology professor said that the cost of an education has risen at such an alarming rate due to a decrease in federal and state funding, in the form of direct funding to universities and in the form of grants to students. Due to the shift of who pays for education, Clawson said education is no longer entirely public. “Effectively, the university is being privatized, it is no longer a fully public university,” Clawson said.
He ended his speech by saying, “we need free public education. We can’t afford it now, so let’s tax the rich.”
Immediately following Clawson’s speech, members of the audience began the chant “Tax the rich! Tax the rich!”
Near the end of the local event, Student Trustee Mike Fox stepped onto the stage to discuss fee increases to be voted on soon by the UMass Board of Trustees. Initially, Fox told the crowd that he still wasn’t sure if he would vote in favor or against fee increases for university students. The crowd responded in anger and several members of the audience shouted, “Vote no!” Hearing the crowd’s response Fox said, “I was elected to represent the people, and you are the people who are passionate and and clearly want no, so I will vote no.”
The teach-in at UMass was one of four teach-ins chosen by the national group to be featured on the event website, www.fightbackteachin.org.
Ben Taylor, a student at UMass and the local event’s the master of ceremonies, said, in an interview prior to the event, he feels that there needs to be a national fight against student debt, and he feels this event could be the start of one.
“It’s the first time in my adult life that I’ve heard of something like a national teach-in on budget cuts, on austerity, on the attack on the working class,” he said. “It feels like a historic moment, something that absolutely needed to happen.”
Taylor said he felt strongly about the issue of student debt as graduation approaches and he will have to begin to payback his loans.
“I’m expecting to graduate with $40-50 thousand worth of student loan debt. It’s a horror show, student debt is the new national debt crisis.”
An average graduate of UMass faces $21,614 of student loan debt upon graduation, according to a 2008 study by the U.S. Department of Education. The average amount of debt for a college graduate is $20,200 nationally, according to the Department of Education.
On Wednesday, April 6, Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM), a group that advocates at a state-wide level for public higher education, is sponsoring an event to call federal and state legislators to ask them to better fund public higher education institutions. Callers will be asking state legislators to support House Bill 2553 “An Act to Invest in Our Communities,” that, according to a press release from PHENOM, “would progressively raise $1.2 billion by restoring the income tax rate to 5.95 percent, greatly increasing personal exemptions, and increasing the capital gains tax rate to 8.95 percent.”
The call-in will be held in the Cape Cod Lounge from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Michelle Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.