April 16, 2013

SSN and Chicago allies discuss student debt

Southside Solidarity Network (SSN) and a coalition of similar organizations from area colleges, together forming the IIRON Student Network, held a public meeting about student loans and efforts to combat the problem at the Chicago Temple on Saturday.

The speakers pointed out that the sum of the outstanding student debt in the country is over $1 trillion—larger than all of the credit card debt combined. The average student debt per recent graduate is approximately $27,000, and over half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed.

The group advocates a three-pronged “ReNew Deal” to ease the troubles of young college graduates: job creation, student debt alleviation, and climate change prevention.

“This is what we’re inheriting: a melting planet, a trillion dollars of debt, and a lack of good jobs,” second-year Brianna Tong said.

They urged attendees to contact their congressmen and express support for the Student Loan Fairness Act (House of Representatives Bill 1330), which proposes a “10–10” plan for current student debtors to repay their loans. Graduates would pay 10 percent of their discretionary income for 10 years, after which the remainder of their loans would be forgiven. The bill would also cap interest rates on student loans and offer a reduced loan forgiveness period for graduates who work in public service professions in underserved communities. Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Representative Danny Davis (D-IL) told IIRON they would co-sponsor the bill.

Loyola graduate student Amanda Weaver shared her story of struggling with debt. After being unable to find a job after graduating from college, she decided to return to school for a higher degree. Now, a month away from receiving her master’s degree, she worries about her prospects. She estimates that she and her husband have a combined student debt load of over $200,000 and said their inquiries into securing a loan to buy a house - a dream they’ve had for the past few years - met with laughter at the bank.

Weaver said she was always told to take out loans in order to go to college and create a life more comfortable than her upbringing.

“In many ways, I am in worse shape than my parents were,” she said.

Additionally, SSN advocated a UChicago-specific initiative: a no-loan financial aid policy. Second-year Xander Wikstrom explained that the proposed policy would meet all accepted students’ demonstrated need with grants, eliminating the need to borrow money to pay for college.

“Let’s be clear: the University of Chicago can afford this,” Wikstrom said. “They’re sitting on a $6.7 billion endowment.”

SSN members will be meeting with Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid James Nondorf and Executive Director for University Aid Amanda Fijal tomorrow. Approximately 20 members of the IIRON Student Network will be going to Washington, D.C., next weekend for the National People’s Action Network’s annual conference. Third-year Aija Nemer-Aanerud said in an interview that Schakowsky and Davis sent a request on IIRON’s behalf for a meeting with U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. According to Nemer-Aanerud, they hope to urge him to tie federal aid to colleges to their ability to tame rising tuition costs. As of press time, Duncan had not yet responded to the request.

“This is a fight against the corporatization of our schools,” Tong said. “And we are the leaders we have been waiting for who are going to do something about it.”

The IIRON Student Network is comprised of UChicago, Loyola, DePaul, North Park University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago.