College Student Leaders Occupy Sallie Mae

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Hundreds of fired-up and fed-up undergraduates from all over the nation marched up a major Washington, D.C., thoroughfare on March 26, carrying a message: "Sallie Mae, You can't hide. We can see your greedy side."

Megan ForondaMegan Foronda, a UC-Santa Barbara sophomore, was one of 36 who were arrested for “occupying” Sallie Mae.

They filled the street outside the D.C. offices of Sallie Mae for much of the morning, and 36 were arrested after occupying the front entrance to the building. They were asking for a meeting to discuss student debt forgiveness. "This is what democracy looks like!" they chanted to business district passers-by.

With student loan debt climbing to $1 trillion in 2012, education debt is the next bubble, say the students. A major part of the problem is banks like Sallie Mae—the largest private lender, which made $2.7 billion in loans last year and has invested millions lobbying to secure loan terms that favor the private banks and ensure large profits at the expense of students and families.

Megan Foronda, a sophomore at the University of California, Santa Barbara, described the situation in her state, where tuition and fee hikes have resulted in a 32 percent increase in charges just this year alone. "Education is not a priority in this nation," she said. "If you gamble and run up debts, you can discharge them through bankruptcy. Education debts are never dischargeable.

"I'm willing to get arrested today because this doesn't affect just me, but my generation."

Like many of his friends, Ravi Patel, an Oregon State junior, will be using loans to pay for part of his education. Due to the slow economy, they are increasingly worried about their ability to begin repaying these debts when they graduate.

students protest at sallie maeMore than 300 students marched through downtown Washington, DC, to demand student-debt forgiveness.

The students, all of whom participate in their campus student governance organizations, were in town for the 43rd annual legislative meeting of the United States Student Association. In addition to universities in California and Oregon, they came from the University of Wisconsin, Rutgers University, the University of Central Florida and many others. At a Saturday night banquet, AFT executive vice president Francine Lawrence picked up a plaque for the AFT, which was honored as a USSA ally.

Just two days later, the students saw that alliance in action. As police surrounded the group of students occupying Sallie Mae, AFT president Randi Weingarten joined the hundreds chanting "We've got your back!"

"The teachers of America have your back," Weingarten said. "You did everything right. As a country, it is just plain wrong for us to say, 'go to college,' and then not make sure it's affordable. Sallie Mae won't even have the conversation.

"You are right to do this civil action," she affirmed.

While in Washington, D.C., the students met with their congressional representatives to talk about voter suppression laws being passed in their states and the Dream Act. But the big-ticket item was college affordability. The students asked legislators to prevent a hike in federal loan interest rates—set to double in July—and to pass the private Student Loan Bankruptcy Act (making student loans dischargeable) and the Student Loan Forgiveness Act, which would forgive student loan debt after 10 years of on-time, income-contingent determined payments.

At Sallie Mae, what the students asked for was a conversation. What they got was arrested. [Barbara McKenna/photos by Michael Campbell]

March 27, 2012