Biola Jeje, 22, graduated Brooklyn College last May with a degree in political science and a mission: Force lawmakers to address the $1.2 trillion student debt crisis.
“It’s unfair that it’s happening to us, and we’re even being sort of blamed for the amount of debt that we’re being put in,” she said from the offices of New York Students Rising, where she serves as statewide coordinator.
Jeje left college with $9,500 in student loans, less than half the $29,400 national average for four-year college graduates. She and her fellow activists are mobilizing support to march on Albany, New York state’s capital, to deliver a message to legislators.
“We’re demanding an immediate freeze on tuition, and then we’re also demanding restoration of at least one and half billion that’s been cut from state higher education,” she said.
The march is part of Higher Ed Not Debt, a nationwide campaign launched Thursday to focus attention on the student debt crisis that affects 40 million Americans.
“Students are just being forced to borrow in ways and percentages and amounts they weren’t even 10 years ago,” said Robert Hiltonsmith, a policy analyst at the liberal think tank Demos, which released a study Thursday on the relationship between state funding cuts to higher education and soaring tuition.
Demos found that higher education cuts since the Great Recession correlate strongly with state budget gaps. In 2010 for example, Arizona had a 65 percent budget deficit and 51 percent decrease in higher education funding, while California’s 53 percent budget gap was accompanied by a 28 percent cut to higher education.
Demos argues tighter state budgets have triggered higher state tuitions. Nationwide, state higher education funding has declined an average of $2,394 or 27 percent since the Great Recession, while tuition at four-year public universities has increased 20 percent. Factor in hikes to room and board fees, and total student charges at four-year public universities have risen an average of $2,292.
“When you look at the magnitude of these higher education cuts, especially even just since the Great Recession, and then you line that up kind of with the increases in tuition you can see they have to be closely linked,” said Hiltonsmith.
According to Demos, when combined with stagnant wages, a college education — historically viewed as the price of admission to America’s middle class — is also commanding a larger portion of the average American household budget, with tuition at four-year public colleges and universities consuming 15 percent of the median household income in 26 states.
“We’re not arguing for free higher education,” said Hiltonsmith. “We’re arguing for a debt-free higher education where students contribute as much as they can; families contribute as much as they can, and the rest is appropriately funded.”
For Jeje, no less than the future of the nation hangs in the balance. “A lot of public colleges used to be free, and a lot of public colleges in other countries are free,” she said. “A lot of other places think it’s smart to invest in higher education and this country needs to follow suit.”