ORLANDO, Fla. — Student activist groups at the University of Central Florida are organizing a march to bring awareness to student loan debt, one of many planned across the country.
The march, which is part of the broader Million Student March, is set to start at the student union and end at Millican Hall, where the financial aid office and the Office of the President are housed.
The national campaign, to be held on Nov. 12, focuses on three demands: tuition-free public college, the forgiveness of all student debt, and a $15 an hour minimum wage for all campus workers.
The UCF event, organized primarily by its chapter of the Student Labor Action Project, will include the demands posed by the group’s Debt-Free Future campaign, which aims to persuade university officials to commit to systemically informing its employees about the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. UCF currently informs its employees through a single slide on an employment orientation presentation and an information table present at the university’s annual benefits fair.
“Most SLAP chapters are including aspects of their campaign in the Million Student March because it’s not necessarily a march, it’s a ‘day of action’ and everyone’s free to interpret that any way they want,” Ofelia Sanchez, the president of SLAP’s UCF chapter, said. “Our campaign actually falls under the second demand of the march, which is the forgiveness of student debt.”
Groups all over the country are organizing their respective marches in a closed group on Facebook. While there is a separate Facebook page that promotes the Million Student March under a political organization by the same name, it claims to not have any affiliation or alignment with “any established political party, candidate or organization.” Currently, more than 90 campuses in 33 states and the District of Columbia will host a respective march. SLAP, which publicly endorses the national campaign, is organizing nine actions nationally.
Other left-leaning groups on campus are contributing to the effort. The College Democrats at UCF have recently committed to supporting and helping promote the event.
“We’re hoping to help in any way we can with getting people there, moving things, or getting the word out,” Nikki Mariutto, the president of the College Democrats, said.
The Knights for Bernie, a registered student organization officially unaffiliated with the College Democrats that focuses on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid, also voiced their support.
“Student debt has recently surpassed credit card debt. This is unacceptable. A four-year degree is the equivalent of a high school diploma 40 years ago. We decided as a country that we would pay for our children’s education so that they would be prepared for the workforce. We believe that this should now extend to college. We will stand with students all over the country and march for tuition reform,” Stephen Lynch, the vice president of the organization, said in a statement to YPV.
University officials were unaware of the event but stressed how inexpensive a UCF education is relative to other universities.
“About half of our graduates graduate with zero debt, compared with about one-third of students nationally,” UCF spokesman Chad Binette said in an e-mail interview. “A UCF education is ranked among the nation’s best values by both Kiplinger [42nd among public colleges in 2014] and The Princeton Review [150th in the same year].”
The Million Student March comes in response to the $1.2 trillion student loan debt, which has received more press attention in the last few years and has become a key issue in the 2016 presidential primary race. The campaign’s website describes it as a “decentralized day-of-action led by students in response to the rapidly growing education crisis,” according to the Statement of Autonomy available on its website.
“We are rising together as students, teachers, school-workers, debtors, and affected families, struggling within a broken political and economic system, structured to benefit the few at the expense of the many,” the statement says. “In our schools, we must openly confront the corruption and corporatization of education. We must uphold the notion of education as a fundamental human right, and we must resist the commodification of life.”
Critics often cite that free public college is not necessarily free, since funding for tuition-free education relies on increasing taxes that would likely affect middle class Americans. On raising the minimum wage to $15, critics fear that such a hike would force businesses to make up for the cost of labor by either raising prices, laying off workers or, in some industries, mechanizing production.
The College Republicans at UCF were not immediately available for comment. Some students, however, like David Pizarro, feel that the demands of the Million Student March are short-sighted and ignore economic realities.
“Let’s say we can afford it,” Pizarro, the vice president of Students for Rand Paul at UCF, said. “Once college is free, we will have this huge surge of demand for education when the supply simply does not meet. A higher rate of graduates would not meet supply of jobs in the market. Businesses will be therefore be more selective in hiring bachelor graduates, thus decreasing the value of the degree.”
Proponents, however, say that part of that economic reality includes paying for higher education beyond receiving scholarships and grants and having family pitch in.
“Three in ten full-time students work full-time, often by juggling multiple part-time jobs,” Beth Huang, the national coordinator for SLAP, said. “Two-thirds of students at UCF take out student loans. While students are doing everything they can to avoid being priced out so that they can eventually walk across the graduation stage, it’s time for decision-makers to do their part.”
The march held at UCF will begin at 11 a.m. It will be one of two events hosted by student activists in Florida, the other being at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
UPDATE: SLAP’s UCF chapter marched with a giant fake check made out to university President John Hitt for zero dollars in order to pay for “[t]he cost of helping your employees forgive their student debt.”
The march was attended by roughly a dozen people. The check was left at the Office of the President with Hitt’s secretary since he was unavailable to take the check.
The PSLF allows for the forgiveness of federal student debt incurred by most public service employees after 120 monthly payments and 10 years of employment. The cost of implementing the actions put forth by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau pledge, which commits its signatories to systemically informing its employees of the PSLF and providing enrollment assistance.