As Maine college students depart the halls of academia this spring, many will embark on life with unprecedented levels of debt. On Wednesday, some of those students marched to demand free tuition, debt forgiveness and more as part of the nationwide Million Student March.
It was a small protest that worked its way around the University of Maine in Orono — only about a dozen students took part. The free ice cream booth across the way seemed to be drawing more interest. Still, the issue is an important one, says Rich Metellus.
“I’m, I want to say, probably $50,000, from my undergrad,” he says. “Which is not too bad I guess for a lot of people, but it’s still high.”
Metellus, a first-year graduate student at UMaine, wasn’t part of the protest, but he says most students will be worried about their debt loads. He says he has no idea how he’ll pay his off.
“I have like, no, like, cut-clear plan — except for. Um, what I do now is I pay off my interest every month, which is good I guess, but then again some people say, ‘What’s the point?’” he says.
Currently, Metellus isn’t even touching the principal on his loan. His grad school job pays a small stipend which he says is barely enough to live on.
According to campus protesters, student debt in America has topped $1 trillion, and is snowballing at more than $2,700 per second.
The issue hasn’t gone unnoticed by politicians and lawmakers. Debt has been a topic of debate among presidential candidates. And in a rare showing of solidarity between Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic Sen. Justin Alfond, a trio of education bills made its way through the Maine Legislature this session.
One of these, LD 1655, allows students in science, technology, engineering, and math — commonly known as STEM — to receive loans of up to $7,500 per year at no interest if the student lives in Maine and gets a job in a STEM-related career.
That bill is accompanied by a $10 million bond proposal to support the loan relief programs.
But these measures won’t help all students, in all fields of study.
“All degrees are worthwhile, all degrees are valuable,” says Carissa Tinker, a graduate student and organizer of the Orono march who is planning on a liberal arts career focused on leadership, cultural exchange and management.
Tinker says it’s good that the Legislature is recognizing that debt is a problem and working to support some students, but she says the bills don’t go far enough, especially for students in other types of careers or those with a lot of debt.
Tinker will be starting her career about $90,000 in the hole. Her best option, she says, is to work for a nonprofit for 10 years and then apply for loan forgiveness from the federal government.
“It feels like an amount of money that I will never be able to pay back,” she says.
Other demands on the Million Student list include tuition-free schools, a minimum wage of $15 per hour for on-campus jobs and complete divestment from private prison industries, which organizers say allows schools to profit from crime, poverty and mass incarceration.