Debt Protesters Denounce Colleges for Broken Promises

Mark Abramson for The Chronicle

Protesters in Zuccotti Park staged a mock graduation ceremony featuring graduates wearing duct-tape chains to symbolize the burden of debt.
November 27, 2011

Pamela Brown recently added her name to the "pledge of refusal." By doing so, she agreed not to repay her student loans—if 999,999 other Americans sign the pledge, too.

Ms. Brown, a graduate student at the New School here, has more than $100,000 in education debt, which she's long planned to repay after graduating and finding a job. Like many students and recent graduates, however, she's come to see higher education as a promise gone sour, an ever-deepening pit of debt.

Ms. Brown, 42, has considered the likely consequences of keeping her pledge. The ringing telephone and the threatening letters. The garnished wages. The credit score blown to smithereens.

She would accept all that, she insists, in hopes of changing the national conversation about college affordability. "The question has been asked repeatedly about the morality of not paying debts," she says. "We now need to ask the question about the morality of paying when the vast majority of people cannot afford to pay."

Last Monday, Ms. Brown joined about 100 protesters here at Zuccotti Park, the pigeon-infested heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement. They came here to rally for a national campaign of "student-debt refusal," which includes the pledge to cease loan payments once a million people have added their names to the online petition. One student held a sign that said, "Education for the 99% Now."

The rally ignited a dramatic day of student activism in Manhattan. Some students demonstrated in three locations, taking the subway from stop to stop. That night, police officers at the City University of New York's Baruch College arrested 15 protesters during a scuffle in the lobby of a campus building. Hundreds of demonstrators had come to condemn a proposed tuition increase.

Although their placards bore hundreds of different messages, students throughout the city shared similar concerns. They decried debt and tuition hikes. They lamented their job prospects. And they questioned the very narrative of college—its power to transform the lives of all those who enroll, study, and pay up.

Ms. Brown, who was raised in the Bronx, attended Dartmouth College. There she dove deep into the life of the mind, just as she had always heard that students were supposed to do. She liked writing, so she wrote; she liked books, so she read. She majored in philosophy because it seemed like the most challenging subject. "I thought it would be really good training for my brain," she said.

After graduating, in 1992, Ms. Brown discovered that what she had always been told—that as long as you went to an Ivy League college and earned decent grades, you would have a job—wasn't quite true. She worked as a paralegal, then as part of a video-production team. She tried to land a job in media, but no good offers came her way.

Later, Ms. Brown enrolled in a fine-arts program at Columbia University to study film. She took out more than $30,000 in loans to finance her master's degree, but dropped out after concluding that it wouldn't get her the kind of job she wanted, if it got her a job at all. "My generation was on the front lines of finding out that we might not do better than our parents," she says. "So many of us ended up going to grad school by default."

Since enrolling at the New School a few years back, and taking on more debt, Ms. Brown has often discussed her loans over dinner with her husband, Christopher, a chiropractor, who once had a chunk of student debt himself.

Still, Ms. Brown, who hopes to work in the nonprofit sector, says she will be able to pay off her loans someday. She's less certain about students who are half her age.

"This is so emotionally burdensome," she says. "We're now dealing with an entire generation that feels depressed by the amount of money they owe and their ability to pay it off."

Dreams and Theatrics

One might sooner see a herd of unicorns march down Wall Street than a world where student loans are interest-free. But that's exactly what protesters in Zuccotti Park demanded last week. They also said the federal government should finance public institutions entirely, and that all student debt should be written off.

All this they did with flourish. As tourists snapped photographs from open-air buses, demonstrators staged a "graduation" skit, in which a half-dozen students wore caps and gowns made of trash bags. Draped over their shoulders were chains made of duct tape. Each student was presented with a "diploma of debt," showing five-figure amounts that they would owe. The graduates had colorful names ("Penny Less," "Owen Lots").

The organizers—members of an Occupy Wall Street subcommittee on student debt—included Hilary Goodfriend, a senior at New York University. Though debt-free, she came to support students who aren't so lucky.

Ms. Goodfriend, who is from Seattle, described how budget cuts at the University of Washington—where her mother is a professor—had shaped her perspective on higher education. "When states squeeze funding, institutions have to market themselves like any other brand to raise funds," she said. "Universities become a marketplace. Professors war against professors for grants. Departments war against departments for funds."

Another kind of competition often unfolds among prospective students. Call it the quest for the golden envelope—the one that contains an acceptance letter to a prestigious institution. The pressure to attend the "best" colleges, Ms. Goodfriend said, warps students' thinking about college and how to pay for it: "People say, 'Students choose to go to expensive schools,' but students are constantly told, 'This is what you need.' It's a symbol, a prize."

That narrative, several other students agreed, often convinces teenagers and their parents that no loan is too burdensome, as long as one gets into the right college that will open all the doors to the future. Should teenagers who are too young to drink be allowed to take out five-figure loans? The question came up in several conversations here.

As the rally was winding down, Ashley Dawson, an English professor at the College of Staten Island, read from a pledge that asks faculty members to support students who refuse to pay their loans. Debt, he told the crowd, limits what's possible in the classroom.

"When students are working one or two jobs, it affects the kind of assignments you can give them," he said. "We want to maintain the highest educational standards, but it just gets harder and harder."

Later that afternoon, several hundred protesters gathered in Madison Square Park for a rally sponsored by Students United for a Free CUNY. Demonstrators held signs that said, "We run this school" and "This is our future. Hop off it." One by one, students from various New York colleges stood up to describe their struggles to pay for college or rail against tuition increases.

One young man wearing a penguin hat had grown hoarse from shouting. "I'm tired of busting my ass," he yelled, "working 50 hours a week, and still I owe these [people] money." Students roared their support as a dozen New York City police officers looked on.

Down the road, trustees at CUNY's Baruch College were preparing to hold a public hearing. On the agenda was a series of proposed tuition increases—$300 a year for five years. Although the CUNY system's average tuition and fees are low compared with what many state institutions charge, the looming hikes had stirred emotions among many students throughout the city's five boroughs, having become—fairly or not—a symbol of ever-rising costs.

Dan Plaat, a senior at City College, said he had chosen CUNY because it was the cheapest option. He has taken out $15,000 in loans, which he says he can handle, but he predicted that the increases would reduce the number of New Yorkers who could afford to attend. "Where's my choice," he said, "if I don't go here?"

Mr. Plaat, an architecture major, likened the weakening support for public education to a house that's been neglected by its owners. "There's a problem, but the problem isn't with the house itself," he said. "It's that the house isn't being maintained."

A Collective Dissatisfaction

In the long run, Americans with a college degree are still better off than those without one. They will earn more money and fare better in the job market. While that's cold comfort to recent graduates with big debts, few job prospects, and a mattress in mom and dad's basement, it's true.

But the economy has shaken the ground beneath students' shoes. A deep recession has altered many Americans' perceptions of their plight, of what's possible and who's to blame. In turn, the Occupy Wall Street movement has rubbed off on college students, who have taken the protest in their own direction, says Maurice Isserman, a professor of American history at Hamilton College and expert on political activism. "The movement's famous lack of specific demands is actually more of a strength than a weakness," he said. "What Occupy Wall Street has done is galvanize a sense of collective resentments. What has been felt by millions of students as a private burden suddenly is seen in a new light."

Last week, several protesters said that students must recognize their shared concerns. Damien Reyes, a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who was here visiting friends, joined the rally against ­CUNY's proposed tuition hikes. "Apathy in students is a thing of the past," said Mr. Reyes, who carried a sign ("Tuition is for profit, we say stop it") around town all afternoon. "Finally, after many, many years of apathy, we're starting to look at each other and realize that we have power if we act collectively."

As the sun sank, several hundred protesters marched down East 23rd Street toward Baruch, flooding the sidewalks and stopping traffic at each intersection. A chant arose ("They say 'tuition hikes,' we say 'student strikes!'") as passers-by snapped photographs and scrambled to avoid the throngs.

In a doorway, a middle-aged man yelled, "Go get a job!"

Brandon Peker, a recent graduate of the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts, turned to look at the man. "I have a job," he said, "but I choose to be here."

Mr. Peker, who waits tables for a living, was just one of many marchers with no ties to CUNY. He joined the protest out of frustration with the notion that one must attend college to become successful. "This is part of our conditioning as a society," he said. "You don't have to go to college to be a student."

He has $55,000 in student loans, which he figures he can pay back by age 33—10 years from now. Until then, he said, he could not possibly afford to have children.

Chaos at Baruch

After a 15-minute march, the protesters reached the Baruch College. They stopped outside the William and Anita Newman Vertical Conference Center, where the hearing—already at capacity—was under way up on the 14th floor. About 200 protesters poured into the first-floor lobby. Campus police officers directed them to an overflow room where they could watch the hearing on a video screen.

Many protesters refused. A new chant began: "Locked out of CUNY! Locked out of CUNY!"

As the crowd swelled, police officers formed a wall, some of them joining hands, to prevent protesters from entering the building. The wave of bodies, pushing and shoving, grew more restless after the officers repeatedly told the protesters to leave or else be arrested for trespassing.

After many protesters sat down on the floor, the officers marched slowly toward them, pressing the crowd against a wall. Several students tried to run through the officers' arms, but were wrestled to the ground. Officers tackled one student, then another. Between a tangle of legs, one could see a young woman's head on the floor, beneath an officer's knee.

Outside, protesters beat the glass with their fists and chanted, "Shame on you!"

A block away from the chaos at Baruch, Thomas Gokey stood under a streetlight, catching his breath. He was wearing the garbage-bag cap-and-gown ensemble, complete with homemade chains. They represented the six-figure student loans he and his wife must repay, he said.

An adjunct who teaches at Syracuse University, Mr. Gokey had taken a bus here five days earlier to participate in various protests. He was arrested during an attempt to "shut down" the New York Stock Exchange, he explained.

Mr. Gokey, who said he receives no benefits from Syracuse, described the toll that debt had taken on him both in and out of the classroom. "What makes me angry is I have failed students who were really, ­really smart, but they couldn't complete their assignments because they were working so much," he said. "We've created a system that's criminally unfair. Universities have become a filter for the privileged, to keep everyone else out."

Mr. Gokey carried his belongings in what looked like a see-through suitcase. It was plastic packaging that had once held a comforter.

The comforter was back at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, in West Harlem, which had opened its doors to protesters after the city barred them from camping in Zuccotti Park.

It had been a long day. Rain was thwacking Mr. Gokey's plastic costume. After watching the protesters outside Baruch for a while longer, he headed uptown to St. Mary's. There, in a quiet room, he spread his comforter on the floor, stretched out, and went to sleep.

Correction (11/28, 11:55 a.m.): This article originally stated incorrectly that Pamela Brown's husband is carrying student debt. Ms. Brown says that though he had student debt when they were married, he paid it off more than 10 years ago. The article has been changed to reflect this detail.