Occupy Wall Street: Student-Loan Debt Among Top Concerns

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(Courtesy of The Huff Post)

Student-loan debt has continued to grow despite a financial crisis that constrained credit elsewhere, and the increasing burden amid high unemployment is driving at least part of the protests among the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Last year, Americans began to owe more on their student loans then their credit cards, with student debt reaching the $1 trillion mark. Many have flocked to higher education during the down economy, only to find themselves still unemployed or underemployed.

Zak Cunningham is a 22 year old who graduated from Earlham College in Indiana last spring.

He says he “doesn’t know how much student loan debt” he has, since he hasn’t bothered to count. He doesn’t have a job and wants to go to graduate school, but is worried about the cost.

Cunningham, tall, lanky and bare-chested with a red bandana around his neck and cigarette in hand, is among those flocking to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations at Zuccotti Park. And while organizers say there’s no official “census” of who make up the protester base at Occupy events, the presence of student loan debtors and young, unemployed people, is noticeable. See a chart made by Mike Konczal, who parsed data from the related We Are the 99%.

In general, college graduates have held up better in this recession than those with only a high school degree. But the cost of education was at the root of many of the Occupy attendees’ complaints.

“I’m 31,” Natalie Havlin, a college teacher in Brooklyn says. “And I still have a ton of student debt.”

Havlin and many of her students joined the demonstration Tuesday afternoon. She says that half of the freshman she teaches at CUNY City Tech have unpaid internships and consistently ask her about what their job prospects are after college.

“They say that their parents don’t understand,” she says. “CUNY used to be free and people are taking out massive loans. Their parents try to help, but they can’t do much.”

Some borrowers at the park took issue with the repayment terms of student loans, which may balloon when deferred or defaulted and may not be forgiven in cases where the borrower dies.

Mike Skypeck, a 20-year-old who drove nine hours from Portland, Maine, to attend the rally says that the cost of attendance is part of why he dropped out of college after one semester last spring. He estimates he still owes $5,000 to $7,000 for the semester and isn’t sure whether or not he should go back. He’s working part time at a country club.

“I’m not sure what will happen next,” he says, hoisting a large flag over his shoulders on Broadway. “But I was surprised by how many people down here [at the park] understood.”

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