By Jordan Stephen
Across the country, students and graduates alike have been simmering over the growing issue of college loans. Now, with national student debt pushing well past $1.2 trillion,concerned activists are primed to pressure lawmakers to act before the problem boils over.
Young Invincibles, a millennial-focused advocacy organization, is urging those affected by student debt to take the reins through the Campaign to Fix Higher Ed, which aims to ensure the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The law, which gives federal money to universities, offers low-interest loans and maintains certain scholarships, has been a keystone for education funding since 1965. but has yet to be reapproved by Congress.
"Our goal is to build up a voice behind this idea, to push the legislation forward and show there is a necessity in doing this," Krieg Rajaram, State Outreach Coordinator for Young Invincibles, told GVH Live. "We're seeing a lot of students taking initiative and organizing themselves on the issue."
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who has long been an advocate for student debt reform on Capitol Hill, spoke to an enthusiastic crowd at the kick-off event.
"This fight is about our values," Warren said. "The federal government should be helping students get an education, not making a profit off their back."
Warren hammered home that creating debt-free college opportunities and allowing students to refinance their existing loans were vital to re-crafting effective policy.
Senator Warren could not avoid the realities of campaign season, however. She went after several Republican presidential candidates by name, criticizing their approaches to student debt, while offering soft praise for Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
But throughout the day, the conversation was focused on finding solutions that benefit everyone.
"As you can see from the turnout today, there are a lot of people who are very interested and passionate about the issue," Rajaram said. "Individuals are ready to mobilize if they are organized and trained to do so."
Young Invincibles plans to use a full arsenal of digital tools to fuel their grassroots effort. Using the hashtag "FixHigherEd", the group hopes to spread awareness of the campaign online while allowing people to share their stories, Rajaram explained.
Activists who have experienced the burden of debt first hand gathered from all across the country to show support and learn how to tackle student debt at the school, state and federal level.
"I went through the whole process on my own," Brandy Camille Huff, who flew in from Atlanta to attend the event, said in an interview with GVH Live. "The schools and the banks have strategies, they have whole staffs of people dedicated to meeting their financial goals and there really is this huge gap for students and their families and borrowers for meeting their financial goals. There's a need for accountability and education."
Huff, who graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design in 2004, said that the school did not inform her that she was eligible for more federal funding, but instead steered her in the direction of private lenders.
For many students, figuring out how to cover college costs had a deep impact on day-to-day life.
"There were days when I didn't eat. There were days when I didn't know how to make ends meet. We find out, what can we live without?" Marvin Logan, a former student body president and athlete at Kent State University, said of his experience. "Most student athletes are not on full scholarships, they're on partial scholarships. They have to cover their own living expenses and being able to work is really difficult because being a student athlete is a full-time job."
Although Logan worked in television during his college career, NCAA rules kept him from making money off his own likeness.
Like many others, he expressed support for policy that would increase Pell Grant funding to match rising post-secondary education costs.
Another remedy that has garnered support from both President Obama and congressional Democrats is free community college, a plan the White House claims would benefit up to 9 million students nationwide.
"Free community college would be a huge, wonderful thing to do for people," Sherita Flournoy, a student at Malcolm X College, told GVH Live. "I want the generation behind me not to have this issue. I'm extremely hopeful, not just for me when I'm getting my Ph.D., but somebody behind me just trying to get their associate's degree."
The struggle to fix higher education may seem like an uphill battle, but the determination in the room was palpable.
Not to mention, Warren's fiery brand of liberal crusading is sure to fan the flames under any movement.
"We have a choice: We can whimper about this, we can whine about this or we can fight back," she told the crowd. "Are you ready to fight for this?"
The ensuing applause left little question.
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