Roland S. Martin, national columnist | Posted: Sunday, March 7, 2010 4:50 am
All this month we will see thousands of college students jumping up and down, yelling, pumping fists and painting their faces. That’s the annual scene we see when college basketball teams are clawing their way to be one of the precious 65 seeds that enter the NCAA Tournament.
Yet these same students should say the heck with the games and put their energy, zeal and passion into two of the most fundamental issues posing the most dramatic barriers to gaining a college education: the rising cost of tuition and the lack of financial aid.
On Thursday, we saw students begin this process by leading rallies in cities nationwide to protest rising tuition costs. While our political leaders in Washington, D.C., are decrying the rising cost of health care, college tuition is exploding across the nation. Education leaders say it’s all about the economy. But when the cost of tuition is jacked up as high as 30 percent in some states and many parents are without jobs or facing wage cutbacks, their children see no hope. And oftentimes, the decision is to postpone school or cut back on how many hours to take per semester, which delays that student from being able to graduate and find a well-paying job.
But marching and demanding a rollback of student tuition is just one front of the battle that students, both in college and high school, should be waging. The other is fighting the banking lobby, which is spending millions of dollars to keep Congress members from changing financial aid laws.
The Obama administration has proposed eliminating the substantial subsidies banks enjoy for handling most of the processed college loans, which have virtually no risk. Federal officials say the banks are reaping upward of $9 billion a year in these subsidies, including interest collected. And the Obama administration wants to push more of that money to students by increasing Pell and Perkins loans. Various estimates have put the cost savings to taxpayers at more than $80 billion over the next 10 years. The changes also limit the maximum a student pays to 10 percent of their income, as well as cutting 10 years off their repayment if they take a public service job.
Their rationale is simple: If the federal government is already assuming the risk of loans, and no substantial data have been presented to show that the banks are truly making a difference with their counseling services, why not cut out the middleman like Sallie Mae and free up more money for students?
There are some grassroots organizations fighting the banks, such as the United States Student Association, but they are going up against entrenched interests and some are actual university officials. The banking industry has used their financial power to wine and dine college officials, lavishing gifts, golf trips and other perks to keep them in line. So, the very folks who should be wanting students to get as much money as possible to stay in school are actually not operating in their best interests.
Here you have two fundamental roadblocks facing students, and too many are complaining and not focused on action. Some even suggest they have no power to fight such well-funded interests. I say nonsense.
This February, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement sit-ins, which were launched in Greensboro, N.C. Four students at North Carolina A&T decided that they had enough of the segregated lunch counters in downtown Greensboro. So, they politely walked in and asked to be served. When refused and thrown out, they came back. And back. And back.
Over the course of this nation’s history, it has always been the nation’s young who took to the streets, statehouses, college campuses and the halls of Congress to demand change.
It worked then and it can work now.
It’s time that we see college students, high-school students and even parents join those who are still paying back student loans. They need to identify the banks that are fighting changes and do the following if they persist:
• Remove your money from their coffers. If these banks are fighting against your best interests, they don’t deserve your account. Take it to a community bank that will support your efforts.
• Stage pickets and sit-ins. Imagine what would happen if thousands of students fanned out across a city, picketed and actually led sit-ins in the banks. Yes, shut them down.
• Rally the masses online. Today’s generation is far more proficient at text messaging, social media and online video. Instead of talking about the latest celebrity news, use the mediums to galvanize and build a national movement.
• Hit the hallways of Congress and state legislatures. Come up with a list of legislators not fighting rising tuition or who are in the pockets of Sallie Mae and the banks. Send throngs of students from each district. Make it clear that you will organize young voters and parents in their district and throw them out of office if they continue to allow the banks to run roughshod.
• Engage celebrities in the battle. Kanye West, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Ashton Kutcher, P. Diddy and so many others have millions following them on Twitter and Facebook. It’s time to enlist them in this battle.
Students, the time for talk is over. The time for action is now. Many of you went to the polls to vote for Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain. Election Day 2008 was not the end, but the beginning. If you want change, then you better work for it.
Roland S. Martin is a CNN contributor and a talk show host for WVON/AM in Chicago.