A coalition of students, teachers and staff at the University of Texas at Austin rallied Thursday as part of a nationwide call for free college tuition, the cancellation of all student debt and a $15 minimum wage for campus employees. The Austin event was one of about a hundred “Million Student March” rallies at campuses around the country.
Though movement leaders say they’re not affiliated with any particular political party, candidate or organization, the nationwide day of public protest was sparked by Senator Bernie Sanders, who earlier this year said that Republicans would have no choice but to address the rising student debt epidemic if a million of the nation’s youth marched on Washington demanding change.
Before the Austin protest, UT graduate student Eric Borja told the Observer he joined the rally because he has “a ton of debt” — so much that it has put a financial strain on both him and his family. “If I don’t pay it off, [Borja’s parents’] social security gets tarnished,” he said.
One hundred or so protesters chanted “Education is a right, not just for the rich and white” and “College is for education, not for profit corporation” as they marched for just under an hour, occasionally blocking traffic in and around the Forty Acres. When the group finally made its way to the center of campus, one of the demonstration’s organizers mounted the UT Tower steps to speak.
“They’re trying to increase tuition, right?” shouted Loyce Gayo, a UT senior. “This is not just an education thing. They’re trying to convince us that the institution is the true victim in this situation.”
Earlier this fall, the UT system’s governing board met to discuss a possible 2 percent increase in tuition rates early next year. UT last raised tuition in 2011; today, a 15-hour course load costs an average of $4,905.
“They’re telling us to get a job. They’re telling us to fix it,” Gayo continued. “But they’re trying to make it harder to get the tools. This is a class issue. This is a gender issue. This is a race issue.”
The crowd, growing larger as students passed on their way to class, cheered Gayo at every declaration. Pointing to the tower behind her, Gayo continued: “This speaks to so many other issues; this speaks to so many other things that [UT officials] have shown us that they don’t care about. They’re sitting in their ivory towers right now. It’s so symbolic.”
To date, more than 40 million Americans have accumulated roughly $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, 58 percent of which is held by the poorest 25 percent of the population. According to a recent analysis from college finance experts, the average class of 2015 college graduate already has over $35,000 in debt.
“We’re gathered here today to let the institution know that we’re fed up,” Gayo told the Observer after the demonstration. “We’re fed up to constantly be pushed around economically, to be marginalized economically. We’re fed up [with] the racism, the institutional racism. And we’re fed up of feeling powerless when decisions are being made about our lives, about our success.”