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Occupy Boston, students protest education debt

By Jay Lindsay
Associated Press / November 3, 2011

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BOSTON—Protesters from the Occupy Boston movement, local unions and area colleges marched through the downtown area on Wednesday to protest the nation's growing student debt, saying higher education is becoming too costly for all but the privileged.

More than 200 protesters gathered at Occupy Boston's Dewey Square encampment, then moved through the city's financial district and up Beacon Hill to the Statehouse.

Police accompanied the group from the front and rear, stopping traffic as protesters moved past the lunchtime crowd, some of whom snapped pictures.

A man held a large American flag near the front of the procession while others held a banner decrying capitalism. Other protesters chanted and carried signs about a variety of causes unrelated to lowering student debt, including support for Occupy Oakland protesters forcibly removed by police but later allowed to return to their encampment.

The Boston marchers also stopped briefly to demonstrate in front of Bank of America and the Harvard Club -- institutions, they said symbolize elitism and corporate greed. Bank of America had no comment on the march. A message requesting comment was left at the Harvard Club.

But the bulk of the protest was focused on higher education loans. Student loans are the No. 2 source of U.S. household debt, and total student debt now exceeds $1 trillion, which protesters say could undermine the economy.

Some protesters called for forgiveness of student debt, while others called for heavy subsidies to dramatically lower the cost of public higher education or an easing of what they said was student lender Sallie Mae's onerous rates and unreasonable collection tactics.

"Not just for the rich and white, education is a right," they chanted.

A message requesting comment was left with Sallie Mae.

Boston resident Sarvenaz Asasy, 33, joined the march after recently graduating with a master's degree in international human rights -- and about $60,000 in student loans.

"There are so many students that are trying to get jobs and go on with their lives," she said. "They've educated themselves, and there are no jobs, and we're paying tons of student loans. For what?"

Asasy said the reason there are few jobs in her field, which aims to help the poor get food and education, is the government focuses on helping corporations while cutting grants that could fund the work she does.

"They're cutting all the grants, and they're bailing out the banks," she said. "I don't get it."

Travis Weiner, a 25-year-old Iraq War veteran from Quincy, said he's not paying for school at the University of Massachusetts at Boston because his education is funded through the GI Bill. But he was at the march to call for free public higher education, perhaps through programs similar to the GI Bill, under which students agree to some form of service.

"We can keep the private universities. If the millionaires want to go to their little schools and pay $40,000 for a name on a degree where you get the same quality of education often, that's fine," he said. "But public education, if you're willing to put in the work and if you're willing to give something back, should not cost you so much money that you're in debt for years. It is unconscionable."