‘Class’ Warfare? Student Debt Crises Fuels the Occupy Wall Street Movement

October 28, 2011 at 5:51 pm

Two-thirds of college students now graduate with debt, owing on average of $24,000. Photo/Creative Commons

At a recent general assembly in Zuccotti Park, a young woman asked, “How many of you believe that education is a right and not a privilege?” The crowd of protesters wiggled their fingers in the air, a sign showing they agreed with the speaker’s statement.

That question speaks to the anger New York lawmakers fueled when they passed tuition increases at both State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY) this summer. Students are now starting to see the first in the series of tuition hikes.

Across the country, students at several colleges walked out of classes in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street Movement on Oct. 5. In New York, students at CUNY, The New School, Brooklyn College and NYU joined thousands of protesters and union members for a rally in a lower Manhattan. AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

Students and recent college graduates make up a large contingent of the Occupy Wall Street encampments around state. And it’s not because they’re schooled in democratic theory, it’s a simple bread and butter issue: the student protesters say rising tuition costs and ballooning student debt are what drove them to the streets.

“I don’t want to be in debt for the rest of my life,” Daniel Robins, one of the Occupy Albany protesters, told the Capitol Report’s Susan Arbetter. Three years ago Robins began to pursue a masters in social work at SUNY Albany.

“To be able to start my family, put food on the table, start to pay for my own kids for college…I knew I needed to pursue more higher education,” Robins said. “I would like to live that dream that I’ve been sold for so long,” he added.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tuition plan includes $300 annual SUNY tuition increases for the next five years. In Albany, both students and some legislators are pushing back against SUNY’s tuition hikes. While Cuomo wants the state’s higher education system to drive economic development, others lawmakers see SUNY’s role as one of accessibility.

At a recent hearing on the issue, chair of the Assembly’s higher education committee, Deborah Glick, said, “The question is, and this is a societal question:  Do we invest in our people or not?”

President Barack Obama also picked up on that theme this week when he announced a series of student loan reforms, one aimed at rescuing people like Robins from a lifetime of student debt.

“About 1.6 million Americans could see their payments go down by hundreds of dollars a month and that includes some of the students who are here today,” he announced to a cheering crowd of students in Denver, Colo. on Oct. 26.

Starting in January, college graduates will be able to cap their monthly federal student loan repayments at 10 percent of their discretionary income. Obama bumped the cap up two years before it was due to take effect under federal law. Outstanding student loans in the United States are projected to reach $1 trillion this year, a larger sum than credit card debt.

Despite these projected figures, Robins has hope: “You hear the support!  Your hear the honking!  People are starting to wake up!”


Susan Arbetter reports for The Capitol Report on SUNY’s tuition hikes and why students in New York are participating in Occupy Wall Street.

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