In two panels at the eighth Netroots Nation in San Jose, the county’s largest convention of progressive activists, participants discussed how community colleges offer the American Dream and how student loan debt – now at more than a trillion dollars – can crush those dreams.
We need to stop treating this debt as an individual problem, said Chris Goff, with AFT Higher Education.
“Student loan debt does not quadruple because of a massive outbreak of irresponsibility among young people,” Goff said. “It drives me crazy when people say, ‘Well, I went to college in 1962, and I worked my way through, and I didn’t have any debt.’ We need to acknowledge it’s not 1962 anymore and ask why this is happening.”
AFT has been working closely with the United States Student Association (USSA), the oldest student-led organization in the country, to take on the student loan crisis.
Tiffany Dena Loftin, president of the USSA, said the union’s support – such as AFT president Randi Weingarten protesting with them in May at Sallie Mae’s shareholder meeting– means a lot. That action at the nation’s largest private student lender’s Delaware headquarters led to a positive result.
“We demanded to have a meeting with the CEO, and they gave it to us,” Loftin said. “That came as a result of working with AFT.”
People on the community college panel also spoke about the effects of the student loan crisis. U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), a former high school teacher and trustee for Riverside Community College, said many of his former students went on to for-profit colleges, where they end up with thousands of dollars of debt.
“I’m really scared about this debt bubble we’re forming,” he said. “There’s aggressive marketing of for-profit colleges to low-income folks, and that puts a lot of kids in debt while community colleges are underfunded. It’s madness to me.”
Alexis Ploss, a panelist and student at Manchester Community College in New Hampshire, said she is one of those students who went into debt at a for-profit college, and that is now the cause she focuses on. Another issue she brought up was retaining community college teachers by paying a living wage with benefits.
Students and teachers can work together in this area as well, said Mary Ann Pacheco, a labor activist and English teacher at Rio Honda Community College in California. Pacheco talked about how community colleges offer the American Dream to everyone– including immigrants, laid-off workers, and veterans.
“It’s a uniquely American institution,” she said. “It represents the belief that everyone should have a first, second, and third chance to be a productive, happy member of society.”
Goff said it was important to remember that access to public education benefits society as a whole and student loan debt affects us all.
“Parents are taking out second mortgages,” he said. “It’s a civil rights issue and a feminist issue because people of color and single moms can’t go to college.”
Goff said he feels proud of the work the AFT does with student organizations.
“We need to support each other and build real partnerships,” he said.
That’s how we’re going to win.”
AFT president Randi Weingarten also spoke at Netroots Nation on gun violence and on getting the facts straight on education reform.
–Emily Wilson for the AFT
Emily Wilson is a California-based freelance writer and adjunct community college teacher.