Why Free Higher Ed Can’t Wait

Originally published on Dollars and Sense 

By Biola Jeje and Belinda Rodriguez

This guest post appears on the Dollars & Sense blog as part of New Economy Week: From Austerity to Prosperity, a week of online and in-person events being convened by the New Economy Coalition from November 9-15

Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has come out in support of free public higher education as part of his campaign platform. Sanders’ plan calls for the elimination of tuition at four-year public colleges and universities. This would be paid for through the implementation of a financial transaction tax, which is a tax of half a percent on Wall Street transactions and could raise close to $300 billion a year.

Sanders is not alone. For years, students and advocates have been pushing for free higher education, citing many other countries where this has been the case for decades. Free education could help us solve some of today’s key economic issues; primarily, the fact that the bar is higher for most employment, with most jobs requiring a college degree. The economy is shifting, and student debt in the United States has reached a historic total of over $1.3 trillion. The average individual debt has now grown to $35k, while wages struggle to grow with inflation. The United States is clearly in need of a deep restructuring in terms of how workers are prepared to enter the labor market.

Continue reading “Why Free Higher Ed Can’t Wait”


Occupy Is Not the Only Movement (The strength of radical movements lies in their variety).

Occupy Is Not the Only Movement (The strength of radical movements lies in their variety).

For In These Times’ December 2013 cover feature, “Generation Hopeless?”, the magazine asked a number of politically savvy people, younger and older, to respond to an essay by 22-year-old Occupy activist Matthew Richards in which he grapples with what the movement meant and whether Occupy’s unfulfilled promises are a lost cause or the seeds of the different world whose promise he glimpsed two years ago. Here is Biola Jeje’s response

The Battle For Affordable College Has Reached the USA’s Most Expensive City

the, battle, for, affordable, college, has, reached, the, usas, most, expensive, city,

Despite torrential rain and stifling humidity, on Monday students from all over New York City congregated in midtown Manhattan, in front of the central administration office of the City University of New York to hold a press conference on the state of CUNY. This comes as CUNY brings on William Kelly as its new chancellor.The press conference was organized by a coalition of student and community groups that included New York Students Rising, The Free University, People Power Movement, and Student Bloc.

Rising tuition and a drop in diversity at senior colleges represent a larger shift that speaks to the restructuring of education happening across the country. Students are paying more for an education that is being watered down to allow for a mass production of degrees that are worth less in this economy.

The struggle for CUNY is significant, because it is currently one of the most affordable public colleges, but unless New York as a whole begins to struggle for it, it won’t remain that way. This is why education needs to move from a student-centered issue to a more social issue. We need to understand how the struggle for education effects everyone and talk about how to make education more affordable for all.

Alyssia Osorio, a student organizer with Students for Educational Rights at City College of New York and New York Students Rising, spoke of how the fall in diversity at CUNY represents a failure of the university to hold up to its mission: “CUNY is becoming a gentrifying agent in New York City, rather than adhering to it’s mission of serving the working class and uplifting the social conditions of many poor New Yorkers by providing them with access to education. We put together this press conference because we’re concerned about CUNY administration’s agenda to corporatize, privatize, and militarize public education.”

Students also spoke out against rising tuition, the hiring of former CIA Director David Petraeus to teach a course at CUNY (who is reportedly getting paid over $150,000 to do it, much higher than the average adjunct pay of only $3,000 per course), and the Pathways Initiative, which takes away faculty control over the curriculum and puts it in the hands of administrators — a move that many faculty have vehemently opposed.

As outlined in an April 26, 2013 New York Times CUNY students’ letter to the editor, the new chancellor will assume responsibility for outgoing Chancellor Matthew Goldstein’s “abysmal legacy.” Since Chancellor Goldstein took office in 1999, university diversity has dramatically shrunk, more classes are taught by underpaid adjuncts, tuition has doubled, the suppression of peaceful dissent has become policy, and top administrators’ salaries have skyrocketed.

This also comes at the same time as the rates on student loans have doubled despite widespread efforts to stop it by lawmakers, advocacy groups, and students. Emma Francis-Snyder, a student at Brooklyn College, notes how tuition hikes at CUNY mean students will be coming out with higher debt upon graduation: “The rise in tuition means that more and more students are going to have to take on loans, which will now take even longer for them to pay back. Meanwhile banks pay only .75% interest on their loans. It’s simply unfair and we need to start supporting accessible education, not corporate banks. Students are being told to pay more while simultaneously getting less, and it’s time we got a better deal out of our education.”

It’s not only students in New York speaking out in support of affordable education, but nationwide. Just recently students, after taking over the Sallie Mae shareholders meeting, met with the new CEO to discuss making higher education affordable.

Even more recently, House Bill 3472, or Pay It Forward, passed the Oregon Senate unanimously, after having passed unanimously in the House last week. This means that Oregon is one step closer to having students pay nothing to attend college, instead paying a small percentage of their income after they graduate into a fund for education. 

Whether or not this is something that other states replicate depends on whether or not everyone — not just students — begin to speak out in support of affordable education. We need to switch the conversation from how much debt we’re taking on, to why it costs so much to go in the first place.

Originally posted on PolicyMic


1TDay: Thousands Across the U.S. Rightly Protest Sallie Mae For Skyrocketing Student Debt

In the coming weeks many students will celebrate their college graduation. What we’re not anticipating are the inevitable loan bills on our student debt. Averaging over $26,000, and with many students quickly slipping into default, new graduates need to look for jobs that can not only support themselves but are looking for jobs that can support them and their large student debt bills.

A September report by the Pew Research Center shows how 1 in 5 households will have some kind of student debt, a rate that has doubled from just 9% 20 years ago. But this isn’t an article about the student debt crisis, but rather what people have begun to do about it.

Last year, to commemorate student loans hitting over one trillion dollars in the United States, Strike Debt an Occupy Wall Street offshoot  launched 1TDay to draw attention to this issue. The previous 1TDay included an event in Union Square where Reverend Billy Talen of the Church of Stop Shopping performed a mock celebration where debt letters were ceremoniously burned. The conversation itself was also shifting. People  began to have more frank conversations around their debt and how the debt crisis is not in fact students’ fault. Even then connections were being made to the housing crisis and how banks gave out predatory loans with inflated interest rates not to help people buy homes, but to inflate their profits. When it comes to student debt, people are also beginning to notice the way race is playing the same role it did in the housing crisis.

We are beginning to see that there are people who should be held accountable for the student debt crisis. One example is Sallie Mae. This year, 1TDay has expanded nationally, with students across the nation coordinating actions targeting Sallie Mae.

Why target Sallie Mae and what did students hope to attain by participating? Isaiah Toney, a Student Labor Action Project coordinator and organizer with the week of action, says “Sallie Mae is the greatest profiteer of student loans in this country. While owning $162.5 billion in student debt, Sallie Mae’s profit margins rise when students are forced to take out more loans. We must remove this incentive.”

To coincide with the action students are taking, Jobs with Justice has put out a fact sheet on some of the reasons why the target is Sallie Mae. Points range from Sallie Mae having over 1,500 complaints against them filed to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (and they’re still open to comments up until May 28), to the fact that they were one of the few large corporations to join the American Legislative Exchange Council in 2012. That’s after public pressure drove corporations such as McDonald’s away from the organization for supporting legislature such as the “Stand Your Ground” law.

This week of nationwide actions isn’t an isolated event. It’s going to take a lot to ensure that education becomes more accessible in the United States and that the stakeholders in the student debt crisis are held accountable and students are gearing up for it. May 30 is the shareholders meeting for Sallie Mae and students plan to be there. “We won’t let corporate powers run our schools and our communities. The 1% must be held accountable to letting us create the access to education and jobs that all people need.”

originally posted on PolicyMic

McKibben+Klein = Do the Math Tour, NYC

from 350.org [I’m there in the grey beret]

This past weekend Bill McKibben from 350.org and Naomi Klein, Nation columnist and author of The Shock Doctrine, came to New York as part of the Do the Math tour. This is a tour making stops all across the United States to draw attention to climate change and to spur a movement to action around it. I was lucky enough to somehow get front row seats at a student friendly price ($0). There was a sold out crowd at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Midtown Manhattan. From the young child who sat next to us eating sandwiches wrapped in lettuce with boiled eggs to older folks who probably won’t be there to see the world as it deals with the full  effects of climate change  – there was a lively crowd hanging onto the words both McKibben and Klein doled out.

The Climate change movement is interesting, often critiqued for its overwhelming whiteness (which was definitely palpable at this event), Hurricane Sandy has shown that this is a very real issue affecting more than just middle class liberals who want solar panels on their sustainable yet heavily Ikea-d homes. The event itself was really energizing. Gone was the depressing tone about how our planet is screwed and we’re all gonna die. This was more about finally digging in and fighting back. McKibben spoke of how it was time for the Left to stop expecting change to come through simply educating other on the dangers. It does not work to only inform people of impending doom when Exxon and Shell are still making money and will keep on polluting our planet until it becomes economically unviable  for them to do so.

Which is why Naomi Klein spoke a lot about divestment. From her days as a student activist occupying the president of her college’s office (which I’ve totally tried to do so major props to her for that) in order to stop apartheid in South Africa , to our current climate predicament , it was clear by the end of the event that the next steps include more than just actions like the one that occurred the next day after the tour moved on to Washington, DC. It’s time to call for divestment from oil companies by both individuals and institutions such as universities and instead support sustainable energy.

“In short: it just doesn’t make sense for universities to invest in a system that will leave their students no livable planet to use their degrees on, or for pension funds to invest in corporations that will ruin the world we plan to retire in. The one thing we know the fossil fuel industry cares about is money. Universities, pension funds, and churches invest a lot of it. If we start with these local institutions and hit the industry where it hurts — their bottom line — we can get their attention and force them to change. This was a key part of how the world ended the apartheid system in South Africa, and we hope it can have the same effect on the climate crisis.” (from http://math.350.org/)

My hope? That we can also end the NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) that has kept the climate change movement in it’s very rigid demographic. At the end of the day the folks who can afford the “If you care” brand of coffee filters are not the ones who will deal with higher rates of asthma in their neighborhood due to the waste transfer station nearby.

It’s about people, why else would this fight be important if we did not want to make sure that WE had a planet to live on. Therefore it’s important to address the needs and struggles of those most heavily affected by climate change. Especially globally. The political climate we’re in now is very much due to changes in food prices. The Arab spring was about food prices, a spike in which was caused by changes in food production caused by climate change. It’s going to hurt nation’s not responsible for this climate epidemic worse, and this is a fact that must be made more prominent when we talk about climate change.


Mayor Bloomberg Serves Imaginary Food to Imaginary Homeless Population

New York is a wonderful city full of wonderful juxtapositions. And by wonderful I mean kind of  awful sometimes. Case in point; New York City Mayor Bloomberg has banned food donations to homeless shelters. This isn’t actually a poorly timed policy choice but actually a move made this past March. What is the rationale for such a move? According to the report, it is because food donated often does not meet nutritional standards.

This is in a country where pizza is considered a vegetable.This is not about health it is about policing the poor in New York. A practice that has only increased under Mayor Bloomberg’s administration.

Here is why this is a terrible idea, by penalizing really poor people because other poor people can’t afford to give away canned Amy’s Organic cream of mushroom soup, you are not solving the problem of hunger and homelessness. The problem is not what people are donating, it is the very fact that we have such a discrepancy in nutritious options in this city. If Mayor Bloomberg wants to help the poor in this city get healthy, attempting to starve them is the most counterintuitive move.

Instead of telling me I cannot buy soda with my food stamps, lets work to make it so that I can afford to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s been well documented that this city has a food justice problem. There are too many areas in this city where you can buy large amounts of empty calories and none of the opposite. Where fast food chains populate streets and grocery stores sell wilted iceberg lettuce. These areas are predominantly populated with poor people. It is not about what you choose, rather what are your choices.

The visibility of the poor in NYC is something that is actively suppressed. There also is a very real problem in this city of trying to erase any notion of  the poor and homeless. On the trains you often hear automated announcements instructing riders to not give food or money to people begging on the trains, since it is illegal for them to do so. We are supposed to ignore the needs of those literally begging for help and go on as though they are not even there.

But not if you’re a massive bank asking for a bailout then you can have billions without so much as fiscal oversight or accountability.

If we really want the homeless population to eat healthy, make healthier foods more accessible to all. Also, try not to deny the fact that there is a homeless population, or assume that shelters are a “pleasurable experience”. That would really help. We need to hold Mayor Bloomberg accountable to all New Yorkers, not just the wealthy ones; to the New Yorkers who are getting priced out of their apartments due to gentrification, getting priced out of education due to tuition hikes at CUNY, and the New Yorkers getting priced out of the transportation system due to fare hikes. This is only a symptom of the larger issue of billionaire Mayor Bloomberg only really looking out for corporate interests and not those of the people he was elected to serve.