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FIGHTING BACK

by Jeff Sykes

Student Power Union rallies against tuition hikes

jeff@yesweekly.com | @jeffreysykes

If the student protestors at UNCG last week are unable to achieve their goal of “justice now,” it won’t be for a lack of trying. The small group of passionate students filled the midday air with revolutionary chants, which elicited whoops of support from across the lawn almost as frequently as they received rolled eyes and hurried steps from disengaged twenty-somethings trying to chat on their cell phone.

It’s a rite of passage, an initiation really, for the passionate intellectual. If a 20-year old isn’t out protesting on the university lawn at one point then something really is amiss. The kids these days have plenty to be worried about.

A stagnant economy and a limping job market, albeit one with signs of green shoots in certain sectors, leave many facing bleak job prospects, or delayed careers. Those who can afford it travel the world or enter the perpetual internship cycle. Others go toe to toe with former classmates for what jobs are available.

A recent Forbes series examined the issue in-depth, and quoted a Federal Reserve Bank of New York report released this year that showed some 44 percent of college graduates were underemployed. With the average student in the UNC system leaving school with about $22,000 in education loan debt, it’s not hard to see why a few dozen students can gather in a moment’s notice on the lawn in front of the Elliot University Center to protest rising tuition costs, and what more than one student described as “shackles of debt.”

The email announcing the event called it a “walkout,” timed to coincide with the UNC Board of Governor’s October meeting taking place Friday morning in Chapel Hill. Students at NC State and UNC-Charlotte held walkouts the day before, with UNC-CH students protesting at the board of governor’s meeting at 8 a.m. on Friday. In Greensboro, students at UNCG gathered about noon “for a speakout and possible further action.”

Aaron Bryant, a senior political science major from Charlotte, wearing a black “Student Power Union“ shirt, dark khakis and Adidas soccer shoes took his position atop the crescent shaped benches at a small square in the center of the lawn where two diagonal paths meet. A good place to be heard and to pull in more voices. Not that Bryant needed help in that regard. His voice booming across the lawn, echoing off the concrete buildings on either side, he raised a call for “revolutionary love.”

Once that got the necessary attention. Bryant led the small crowd in the ubiquitous chant of “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” A bit timid at first, the 15 or so students there at the onset seemed to gain confidence with each chant. They also attracted more supporters.

“We want it right now because it’s uncalled for,” Bryant said.

“It’s unacceptable” Bryant said he was $25,000 in student loan debt at that moment.

“For a four and a half year education, that is unacceptable,” he said. “The chances of me paying that off at any point in the future is almost zero. But the important thing is that I am not the only one.”

The North Carolina Student Power Union formed in 2012, growing out of an earlier movement, the NC Defend Education Coalition, that rose in 2010 in response to budget cuts, tuition hikes and the neighborhood schools movement in Wake County, which many interpreted as an attempted resegregation of public schools.

The Student Power Union’s goal is to reduce tuition and increase financial aid so that the incoming class of 2020 will be able to graduate from public universities debt free. That’s going to be a tall order, especially given the board of governor’s recently announced plan to cap financial aid at 15 percent of campus revenues. The board also voted this summer to limit annual tuition increases to five percent.

At UNCG, the Campus Tuition Committee voted recently to take advantage of that five percent increase, according to Elizabeth Keathley, a professor of music and women and gender studies. Sixty percent of that increase is expected to go to faculty salaries.

“I don’t really believe that because we haven’t had a salary increase in seven years,” Keathley said. “That’s on the docket every time there is a tuition increase.”

Twenty-five percent is supposed to go to student aid, but like many at the speakout, Keathley had a better idea.

“I feel like, hey, why don’t you just keep the tuition low to begin with instead of raising tuition to give people aid?” she said.

That resonated with the sentiments expressed by Gray Williams, a senior from Pittsboro. A numbers guy studying accounting, Williams took to the speaker’s wall to review “a few facts and figures.”

The federal government would make almost $100 billion in a decade financing the some $1.2 trillion of outstanding student debt in America, he said. Though tuition at all public universities in America totaled $67 billion, the government spends about $82 billion a year on financial aid programs.

“What is wrong with this picture?” Williams said. “Everything,” the crowd replied. “What is right with this picture?” someone asked. “Democrats and Republicans alike in Congress are keeping this system the way it is,” Williams said. “Every year we see the same debates. Are they going to let student loans double? Will they? Won’t they? They always just put it off for another year instead of actually finding a solution.”

Williams said afterward that he was raised to speak out on injustice, even if it didn’t affect him. He and his brothers would leave college debt free, he said, thanks to his parents wise investments.

“I think that’s a privilege that should be afforded to everyone,” he said. “They should be able to start their lives without having to worry about paying down an amount that is only going to go up.”

Many in his generation have it rough, he said, compared to the debt load of previous generations.

“There are those who start with nothing, but starting with a lot of student loan debt is starting a lot worse than that,” Williams said.

Danielle Thibault, a graduate student at NC Central, handed out copies of a NC Student Power Union ‘zine she’d crafted. A student of history, she sought to put the speakout back in the proper context.

“The board of governors is made up of people who are investment bankers, real estate developers, retired CEOs,” Thibault said. “They are literally millionaires who are prioritizing profits over your education. Let’s keep in mind who we are fighting here.” !

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