Hundreds of students joined protests at campuses from Berkely to Philadelphia.
“Education should be free. The United States is the richest country in the world, yet students have to take on crippling debt in order to get a college education,” the movement's organizers said in a statement on their website.
Organizers of what was dubbed the Million Student March are demanding tuition-free public colleges, a cancellation of all student debt and a $15-an-hour minimum wage for campus workers.
The total volume of outstanding U.S. student loan debt has more than doubled to $1.2 trillion, according to the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, compared with less than $600 billion in 2006. The median borrower has an outstanding balance of approximately $15,000, according to the New York Federal Reserve.
The bureau said there are about 8 million private and federal loan borrowers in default, representing more than $110 billion, while millions more are finding it difficult to keep up with repayments. Roughly a quarter of all those who left school in 2005 have since defaulted, according to the New York Fed.
Default can have serious consequences for borrowers. Former students who don't pay their student loans can have their wages or social security checks garnished, and their credit score seriously damaged.
Dealing with swiftly mounting student loan debt has been a focus of candidates vying for the White House in 2016.
Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont, has vowed to make tuition free at public universities and colleges, and has pledged to cut interest rates for student loans.
His rival Hillary Clinton has said she would increase access to tuition grants, let graduates refinance loans at lower interest rates and streamline income-based repayment plans.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio is the most prominent Republican candidate to lay out a concrete proposal, saying he would establish an income-based repayment system for federal student loans and would simplify the application process for federal aid.
“This is clearly an urgent crisis, but establishment politicians from both parties are failing to take action,” the student debt group said in its statement.
Wire services. With additional reporting by Patricia Sabga