By Raoul Biron, Staff Writer
“$20,000 a year just to skip Discovery classes.” Some of the signs people were holding specified $20,000, some $60,000, but all said “ask me about my student debt”.
“I have $60,000 in debt and my parents co-signed. If I can’t pay, they could lose their house,” said Sarah Young, a UNH senior addressing roughly 30 people through a megaphone.
On April 30, students, prospective students, alumni and local politicians took turns standing on a ledge in the shadow of Thompson Hall and speaking about how the cost of higher education is limiting opportunities.
As one or two people put in their headphones to avoid hearing the bullhorn, students on their way to class skated in between speakers and members of the UNH community and its Peace and Justice League worked to make dramatic increases in student debt a more urgent concern.
The rally started inside a meeting room in the MUB. Students were making signs, casually introducing themselves to one another and talking about concerns for their futures. In one corner, New Hampshire House Representative Wayne Burton (D–Durham) spoke to an incoming freshman about the private loans he might need in order to attend UNH. Meanwhile across the room, former gubernatorial candidate Rep. Jackie Cilley (D–Barrington) and adjunct professor at the Peter T. Paul School of Business and Economics introduced herself to every person coming through the door.
“We’re literally a dying state if we don’t turn this around,” Cilley said in conversation with a small group of students.
Trying to do just that, everyone grabbed their signs and started walking. Following freshman Jonathan Brown through the MUB, past Hamilton Smith and Thompson Hall, and into the Murkland Courtyard this small group made a lot of noise.
“Thirty years ago a college degree was affordable… a world of opportunity and innovation awaited those graduates,” Brown said. “Today, outstanding student loan debt nears $1.3 trillion. That debt increases by $250 million every day and New Hampshire graduates on average contribute $33,000. That is the highest student debt burden in the country.”
Rep. Burton was handed the megaphone next. Speaking as a former UNH financial aid officer, the state representative spoke about the impact that student protest and mobility had on UNH and larger national issues during the Vietnam War.
“Our democracy is only as strong as the intelligence of its people. If we in any way prevent a student from attending college because of massive student debt, we are doing it a disservice,” Rep. Burton said.
Rep. Cilley called for the attention of the students milling around the courtyard next. A UNH alum and first generation college graduate, Cilley implored students to fight for change on an even larger economic scale and focus on wage inequality as a driving force behind the rise in tuition.
“Since I went to school in 1979, the cost of education has risen 1,780 percent while your parents’ wages remain stagnant … 40 million students owing 1.2 billion dollars worth of debt has serious implications,” Rep. Cilley said.
“Our presidential candidates will be all over this state,” Rep. Cilley continued.
“You need to go to as many of these public events as humanly possible, bring your friends, your family and ask those presidential candidates what they are doing to eliminate student debt. If they can’t give you a cogent answer, that’s not someone you can support.”
The universal impact of student debt proliferation was on everyone’s mind, but solutions were much harder for students to define. As young person after young person expressed their fears for the future and the personal impact of owing so much money, Jonathan Brown focused on the damage that an inactive or passive college community can have on finding a solution.
“Don’t just leave this message here in Murkland Courtyard,” Brown said. “I see far too many people who can just accept the burden of this much debt. All these numbers are just arbitrary. $80,000. I’ve only seen that much money in a game of monopoly … We need to stop letting the cost of higher education delay our future.”
According to Brown, the ultimate goal of the event was to spread awareness, considering he finds it difficult for students to facilitate change without being aware of how much they owe.
Follow Raoul on Twitter: @raoulbiron