Students Nationwide to March for Debt Relief and a $15 Minimum on Campus

(Photo: AP/Bloomington Herald-Times/Jeremy Hogan)

A student holds a sign during a 2013 strike at Indiana University, in protest of rising tuition rates.

Thousands of students, professors, and university workers were scheduled to take to the streets Thursday in a “Million Student March” inspired in part by Bernie Sanders.

The march, built around demands for tuition-free public college, cancellation of all student debt, and a $15 minimum wage for campus workers, furnishes an early test of whether the Independent Vermont senator’s presidential campaign will fuel a broader progressive movement. In a June interview with Katie Couric, Sanders said that the only way to achieve free higher education would be for a million students to march on Washington to demand it.

“People have been talking about this for a while, but the tipping point was Bernie’s call,” says Keely Mullen, a junior at Northeastern University who expects to graduate next year with more than $150,000 in tuition debt.

Thursday’s march does not bring a million students to the nation’s capital, but it does boast crowds of anywhere from several hundred at the University of Utah to several thousand at the City College of New York. Coordinated across more than 120 schools in 33 states, the action marks the first national campaign combining the demands of students, faculty, and campus employees.

“It caught fire pretty quickly,” says Elan Axelbank, an undergraduate at Northeastern University and veteran of a successful Fight for 15 campaign there earlier this year. (That campaign calls for a $15 minimum wage.) 

Axelbank and fellow activists on campuses around the country began coordinating in August, and by November endorsements were rolling in from National Nurses United, National People’s Action, and dozens of other groups. As recently as Wednesday, National Nurses United pledged to send hundreds of nurses to the march at the University of California, Berkeley.

While Sanders’s bid for the White House may be a long shot, Mullen acknowledges, it has given voice to issues overlooked in the national conversation.

“Within the Democratic machine it’s really hard for a grassroots candidate to secure the nomination and people are beginning to recognize that,” she says. “But I think there’s a good chance that Bernie’s campaign will turn into a larger movement.”

Like Axelbank, Mullen is a veteran of 15 Now NU, an SEIU-supported push for a campus-wide $15 minimum wage at Northeastern University that launched in 2014. And like the Million Student March, 15 Now has united students and low-wage university workers in a common push for economic fairness on campus.  

This past April, 15 Now won a critical referendum on campus wages and has since entered into negotiations with Northeastern University. The double whammy of students working in tandem with university employees gave that effort punch, organizers say.

“The 15 Now NU campaign had a direct influence on the setting of our three demands,” says Axelbank. “If it was just students it would’ve done just X amount; if it was just workers, it would’ve done just X amount. But students and workers together can accomplish much more.”

The march also demonstrates how mounting public concern over student debt taps broader angst over wage and economic equity.

“Student debt has become a kitchen-table issue at this point,” says Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst at Demos. “Because borrowing is now a prerequisite to college, it’s now embedded in traditional issues of economic fairness and things that students tend to be active about.”

The issue is also resonating on the presidential campaign trail. Earlier this year, President Obama laid out an ambitious plan for tuition-free community college, a proposal so far adopted by two states. Democratic candidates for the White House have gone further, with Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley calling for debt-free higher education and Sanders calling for tuition-free public college.

“This is becoming a consensus on the Democratic side,” Huelsman says. “I liken it to universal health care. That had been an issue among Democrats for a long time, and it took a pretty specific moment, and you had this moment of consensus in 2008. Now you’re seeing that with free college or debt-free college.”

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