On Thursday, students across the country will walk out of their classrooms and march for the right to a free college education. According to organizers, 110 college campuses across the country are expected to participate in the grassroots event.
“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 organizers of Thursday’s event, dubbed the Million Student March, explain on their website. “We are united to fight for education as a human right.”
The day of student activism comes just a few days after fast food workers in hundreds of cities held their biggest strike yet as they fight for higher wages and the right to form a union. The biggest marches are expected to be held in Santa Barbara, California, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland, and Seattle, according to Keely Mullen, one of the lead organizers of the event.
What is the march asking for?
All of the participants in the Million Student March are focused on three primary economic goals to improve the situation for students: the right to a free education, the elimination of all current student debt, and better paying jobs on campus. Individual marches may also touch on issues that affect university staff, such as better pay for adjunct professors.
“There is a serious concentration of wealth right now in college campuses and administrators are making exponentially more than the average worker on campus,” Mullen said in an interview with ThinkProgress.
As the movement grows, Mullen hopes the call for free college will eventually come to include things like fees, textbooks, and housing. “Obviously that is going to be a huge battle, and will happen incrementally, but I see that as instrumental in providing free education,” she said.
Where did the idea of the march come from?
The idea for the march was sparked by comments that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders made earlier this year about the need for a movement of student activists calling for a plan to end national student loan debt, which swelled to more than $1 trillion dollars earlier this year.
“If a million young people march on Washington they [say] to the Republican leadership, we know what’s going on, and you better vote to deal with student debt. You better vote to make public universities and colleges tuition free, that’s when it will happen,” Sanders said during an interview with Yahoo’s Katie Couric in June.
Mullen, who attends Northeastern University, said that Sanders’ remarks inspired student organizers to create a Facebook page to start planning the type of march that he was referencing. It became much more popular than she expected, and soon the organizers were receiving a “massive influx” of emails. Now, the movement has a central organizing committee that developed the list of demands for the marches and is organizing the day of action.
Who is marching?
A large portion of students who will march on Thursday are graduates or students of for-profit colleges, though many of the organizers are people who are attending or have graduated from traditional four-year colleges. Issues such as legacy admissions haven’t been on most of the lists of demands because the population of marchers aren’t going to Ivy League colleges, Mullen said.
“The graduates of for-profit colleges are working numerous jobs to try to pay off this predatory debt and afford basic living. They don’t have the capacity to organize quite as much,” Mullen said.
Mullen said that similar advocacy groups like Debt Collective and Strike Debt have not yet been in touch with the Million Student March, but she expects there will be more involvement from those groups’ organizers soon. Luke Herrine, an organizer and legal coordinator with the Debt Collective, which is an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, said it was likely several Debt Collective members would attend the marches.
Adjuncts have also played a “key role” in the movement, making pay parity for adjuncts or an adjunct union a demand in a number of marches across the country. One of the more vocal organizers, James Hoff, who has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, is an adjunct English professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College.
Does the march support any candidates?
One of the challenges of the march is organizing outside party politics, Mullen said. Although she acknowledges that some presidential candidates’ platforms on higher education meet their goals better than others — with Bernie Sanders meeting two of them and Jill Stein meeting all three of them — the point of the march is not to support any one candidate.
Although Jill Stein, who is running for president under the Green Party, will attend the Boston march, Mullen emphasized that Stein’s appearance should not be seen as an endorsement from the march’s organizers.
“One of the things that’s really hard for us right now is organizing outside the electoral system because people have forgotten the importance of movements, and yeah, we can vote someone into office, but the world isn’t going to significantly change with one person in one office. You need millions of people in the streets demanding change,” Mullen said. “Our goal is to build a movement and not an electoral campaign.”
Mullen does hope the movement will force government offices and presidential candidates to take notice of the group’s demands, however.
“One of the reasons I think it’s not being handled way more aggressively by the Department of Education is that hasn’t been a massive student movement yet,” she said. “The approach of the Department of Education and particularly Hillary Clinton, who has probably the most centrist position on education, is a product of there not being pressure from below and I’m hoping that this movement blows up and provides that type of motivation to offices to take a stand on this.”