“Pretty much my only option at this point is to die in debt or win the lottery,” said URI communications major Jeff Blanchette at an Occupy URI “teach-in” on Thursday afternoon in White Hall.
He was one of two students in the classroom that will owe more than $30,000 in student debt by the time they graduate. One woman owes $57,000, she said.
Student debt was a hot topic at the teach-in, as well it should have been, as recent graduates are finishing school with far more loan debt than ever before.
It’s part of an increasing trend in the United States, said sociology professor Helen Meder. She said there was a time in American history when the workforce was paid for learning a skill. It was called an apprenticeship. Now, not only does the next generation workforce pay tens of thousands of dollars to get the skills required for an entry level job, they often work for free during college for the very same kinds of companies that will one day employ them. It’s called an internship.
“I am really reconsidering unpaid internships because we are corporate pawns for doing that,” she said. “Students pay for three credits then go work for some corporation for the semester, and university actually making out cause don’t have to pay a prof for that.
“Corporations have externalized those costs onto you,” she added. “It’s an in-kind contribution to corporations so they can continue to externalize costs and continue to make record profits.”
Scott Molloy, a professor of labor relations and the university’s professor of the year in 2004, said he recalls 25 years ago when very few students graduated with debt. Now, it is commonplace.
“This is a new phenomenon,” he said.
As the state continues to slowly over time cut funding for public higher education, he said, URI responds by raising tuition, meaning a college degree – even from a state school – becomes increasingly a privilege
that can be enjoyed only by the wealthy, or those like Blanchette willing to take on massive debt.
Because of this new phenomenon, the Occupy College movement has taken off across the country as the Occupy Wall Street movement has slowed down during the winter months. More than 120 colleges and universities across the country held “teach-ins” on Wednesday or Thursday. Occupy URI plans to hold a rally on the campus quad on March 1 to bring the message of the teach-in to the students.