A small but dedicated group of New York University students, graduates and their supporters came out to take a stance against student debt in an event called Casualties of Debt on Wednesday.
The demonstration, which was hosted by MTV's Andrew Jenks and NYU Local editor-in-chief Charlie Eisenhood, was designed to raise awareness for the debt crisis at NYU, where students owe a collective $659 million -- an average of $35,000 each upon graduation, which is around $11,000 higher than the national average.
After a number of people had gathered, Jenks instructed students to write the amount of debt they will have accrued once they leave NYU on white T-shirts with red dollar signs distributed by volunteers and stand still for a moment. "The point is to show that young people care," Jenks said. "People say that we don't give a shit, and it's an easy out. And so this is a starting step for all of us to try to make a difference. Call it cheesy, call it hokey, call it inane, call it silly, call it whatever you want, but we care and that's a starting point for me."
Sporting their shirts and blank-faced masks, the students stood for a moment of silence in an area bound by two American flags.
Though the problem of excessive debt is especially relevant at NYU, Jenks says that the issue is widespread -- and that he hopes the NYU protest will serve as a prototype for schools nationwide.
"It's not just about NYU. It's about the college system in the U.S., and how you can make it better," said Jenks. He added, "Obama said that higher education is the pathway to success. If a good education is a prerequisite for success, [that means] a prerequisite for success is a $24,000 loan."
For the freshman and sophomores in attendance, the payment date remains far enough in the future to still feel theoretical -- but the effects of the stress are real. Sophomores Andrew Olshevski and Susu Harmache both said they feel guilty for putting such a heavy financial burden on their families, and freshman Annie Utley said that the high tuition had a "definitely put a strain" on her relationship with her father, who works weekends to help defray the immense cost of her education.
And for older students, that looming debt is starting to feel real. Junior Bridget Moschetti said that her debt will be $220,000 upon graduation, not factoring in commuting costs. When asked what she hoped would come of the demonstration, Moschetti said she would like for tuition would go down -- "but it's not going to happen." And when asked to describe a best-case scenario, she said that NYU's good name would propel her into a career lucrative enough to pay off the massive debt.
Kristina Ensminger had similar hopes when she enrolled at NYU's journalism school, but was disappointed when the prestigious degree failed to deliver. "I knew that I would be in debt, but I guess I thought the earning potential would be greater," she said.
Ensminger earned her bachelor's degree from UC-Santa Barbara, where she also graduated with debt -- but only 1/3 of what she accrued at NYU. This discrepancy begs the question of agency in students' decisions of where to enroll. Debt is certainly a pervasive problem, but NYU's tuition is notoriously high, and students who choose to attend should have this in mind.
When asked whether or not he thought students must claim some responsibility for the financial consequences of their choices, Eisenhood countered with some questions of his own: "Can you make what amounts to a massive financial decision at 18? Do you have all of the information?" According to him, the answer is no. "The government and universities don't do enough [to inform students]...people know, but it's still not fair... a conversation needs to start here," he said.
And students hope that their presence at the demonstration will help get that conversation started. As freshman Angela Almeida said, "It's cumulative. Maybe 100 people are here now, but in six months, maybe it'll be 200."
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