How UMass is rising up against student debt

By Lauren Vaughn

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Evan Sahagian/Collegian

In Massachusetts, 65 percent of students graduate with debt, owing on average a whopping $27,181 per student. The class of 2011 is the most indebted class so far, with the future of the following classes looking even more financially grim. Student loan debt has now reached $1 trillion and counting in the United States, surpassing credit card debt for the first time ever. And tuition costs continue to rise without the guarantee that the quality of education or the value of our degrees will rise along with it.

Most of us seem to have accepted a crippling amount of debt as a packaged deal with our cap and gown. While college tuitions skyrocket and household incomes continue to level off, students and their families quietly struggle to make ends meet.

In response, however, there have been no mass protests like the ones seen in Quebec, where last spring students gathered in staggering numbers to protest a five-year, 60 percent tuition hike. There seems to be no noticeable commotion here on campus concerning the debt many of us are going into in order to get an education and a job, which we desperately need to pay off the debt we accumulated trying get that job in the first place.

According to The American Prospect, youth “simply don’t have the time or energy to start innovative revolutions from scratch because they are so busy taking standardized tests and building their resumes with internships.” In “8 Reasons Young Americans Don’t Fight Back,” Bruce E. Levine, called student debt a “vicious cycle,” said that it “has a subduing effect on activism, and political passivity makes it more likely that students will accept such debt as a natural part of life.”

Although these sentiments resonate with many of us, it doesn’t mean that students are not angered by their financial situations or that there is not outrage and solidarity in our struggles—it just means that finding the time to organize might not always be easy. And although there appears to be more silence surrounding these issues in the U.S.,  there are students in our own backyard rising up and working toward change.

In fact, there are several groups here at UMass that are establishing an activist presence around issues of student debt and the cost of higher education. Groups such as Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM) and Center for Education and Policy Advocacy (CEPA) are hard at work, sending letters to senators, organizing fax attacks which clog senator’s fax machines, filling their inboxes with messages asking for change and organizing events and information sessions to explain how to get involved and make our voices heard.

One group, which I have started with an advisor, called UMass Students Against Debt, is exclusively organized around the student debt crisis. With a focus on graphic art, info-graphics and signage, we use social media— everything from Facebook to Tumblr to Twitter— to make connections, spread knowledge and inspire action. Our recent endeavor, The Debt Fence, begun on April 1, includes expressions of the way UMass students feel about the debt they’ve accumulated since enrolling.

One sign reads, “UMass put me in debt. Now what?” Another, “I now pronounce you Student in Debt.” And still another, “Keep calm, carry on, and eat ramen for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

We focus on bringing art and humor to the cause while still motivating the UMass community to speak out about the very real effects of student debt, which can hang over us for decades and even a lifetime. We are moving from URL to IRL (that is, from the Internet to real life) by organizing and bringing dialogues about student debt into classrooms and dorms where those who are affected can share their stories and realize that they are not “A-LOAN.” By providing the opportunity for a community dialogue, UMass Students Against Debt can – with your help – begin to break the silence surrounding student debt.

The first step in creating social change is being able to name the problem and have the courage to tell one’s story. Then, we can figure out what a different system would look like and find ways to generate the mass movement needed to push things forward.

We all have a voice, so send us your generation debt testimonies, your student debt mugshots, your stories, poetry and illustrations to help us break the silence. If the 65 percent of Massachusetts’s students set to graduate with debt started to share their stories, our presence could not be ignored. Those who are struggling and who are set to graduate with crippling amounts of debt are sadly in the majority – so let’s speak out together, finding support in one another and begin to demand change together instead of A-LOAN.

For more information about UMass Students Against Debt, visit facebook.com/UMassStudentDebt, studentagainstdebt.tumblr.com, twitter.com/UMassDebtPrblmz.

Lauren Vaughn is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].