WASHINGTON, D.C. — A section of 7th street was closed on Monday – not by road construction or police barricades, but by students from twelve states there to protest student lending giant Sallie Mae.
Thirty-six students were arrested outside the corporation's Washington, D.C. office—including Matt Cordeiro, the student body president of Rutgers University New Brunswick.
In total 300 students were there to protest against tuition hikes, cuts to education funding, student debt and unfair lending practices. In addition to Cordeiro, two other Rutgers students were arrested for blocking the entrance to the building.
The protestors were all members of the United States Student Association. Clad in business-casual dress, the studentsmarched outside Sallie Mae’s office, chanting, “Sallie Mae, you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side!”
They called for lowered interest rates, student debt relief, and lower tuition.
Students hailed from over thirty different universities and were in the nation's capital to attend the USSA's legislative conference, which taught legislative lobbying tactics to advocate for issues of higher education and student debt.
Many students volunteered to risk arrest, blocking both the street outside the office’s main entrance and the street outside. The students who occupied the entrance demanded to speak with CEO Albert Lord and refused to leave until he complied.
When Lord refused to come out, the students sat and chanted back and forth with the other protesters until one by one they were arrested by the D.C. metropolitan police.
“If they had simply met with us, there would have been no cause for civil disobedience and consequently no arrests,” said Spencer Klein, a student at Rutgers who participated in the protest.
The 36 arrested students were charged with blocking passage, roughly equivalent to minor traffic violations. All were released a few hours later with a fine of $50 per person.
In the past few years, the federal government—as well as state governments—have imposed cuts in funding to higher education that have made it difficult for students to pay for colleges and universities, forcing them to take out loans from both the federal government and private lenders such as Sallie Mae.
This past month, the total monetary amount of student debt has reached $1 trillion, and Sallie Mae is the number one holder of student debt, totaling $173 billion.
A number of federal student aid programs have been cut or eliminated. The SEOG, TRIO and GEAR UP programs endured cuts to funding, and the LEAP and year-round summer Pell Grant programs have been eliminated, as well as direct loan repayment incentives (which gave borrowers a 0.25% interest rate reduction if they made payments on time for 12 months).
If Congress does not act, the interest rates on federal subsidized Stafford loans will climb from 3.4% to 6.8%.
Sentiments of fear are shared by students across the nation and in the state of New Jersey as they witness both their tuition fees and interest rates increasing.
Andrew Gruna, a Rutgers-Newark student and participant in the protest, relayed his concerns about education in America: “The state of higher education is in a situation that Americans have never seen. The cost of education is skyrocketing while the quality or education is declining. To meet the rising costs, students are forced to take out loans to afford tuition.”
Salena Dioubate, a protestor from Rutgers-New Brunswick, had similar feelings.
“Lack of funds for K-12 and higher education has become a huge problem. The lack of federal support in funding higher education and student reliance on loans has created another factor in the economic crisis that will disadvantage the future of America.”
The student debt crisis, as the students of the United States Student Association assert, has created another bubble. The solution supported by the USSA is a federal bailout of student debt.
In the short-term, the USSA encourages its members and other students to meet with their local legislators to advocate for legislation promoting higher education in America.
Editor's Note: The author of this article is a member of the US Student Association and a participant in the protest.