With student debt now soaring above $1.3 trillion, activists kicked off the new year with two January events, signaling renewed commitment to finding solutions. On Jan. 21, senators crowded a press conference to launch #InTheRed, a campaign to push legislation that would ease student debt. And on Jan. 28, National Student Debt Day, students gathered for advocacy workshops and encouragement from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a longtime champion of affordable higher education. Then they hit Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers and staff to launch the Young Invincibles' Campaign to Fix Higher Ed.
Student loans are held by 43 million Americans, and the average debt is now $30,000. It's a number that is prohibitive for many people who want to attend college but feel they cannot afford it.
"No one who wants to further their education should be priced out of college," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said at the #InTheRed event. With the support of organizations like the AFT and Higher Ed Not Debt, and beside students who described the challenges they face as they try to pay for their college educations, lawmakers described their numerous legislative proposals that would address the issue with free community college, reduced interest on student loans, more accessible refinancing and more available Pell grants. #InTheRed is named for President Obama's statement during the 2016 State of the Union address: He said, "No hardworking student should be stuck in the red."
On Jan. 28, a panel of students shared their experiences struggling with the cost of higher education at a National Student Debt Day event at the University of the District of Columbia. Many students work multiple part-time jobs and turn down unpaid internships that could advance their careers because they can't afford to work for free. Following the panel, young activists learned how to spread the word about the student debt crisis and advocate for change; they learned the power of their personal stories, and got details on repayment options and how to file complaints against debt servicers.
Sen. Warren encouraged the group by reporting successes: Five states already have refinancing options available for student loans. Presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, have college affordability at the top of their agendas. And Democrats have introduced legislation that would make two years of community college free, increase Pell grants, hold colleges accountable for keeping costs down and lower interest on existing student loans.
"If we are a country of opportunity then we need to do more than talk the talk, we need to walk the walk," she said, adding that she has confidence the surge of support for addressing student debt will be effective. "I believe we are going to end the days of people getting crushed by student loans."