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UI students voice tuition concerns at Occupy walkout

BY MATT STARNS | NOVEMBER 18, 2011 7:20 AM

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Students and Occupy Iowa City protesters converged on the Pentacrest in conjunction with Occupy Wall Street's National Day of Action on Thursday.

"It's time the University of Iowa starts being our university again," UI junior Jared Krauss, an Occupy supporter, told the dozens of people gathered near the Old Capitol's east steps. "It's time we take action, it's time we start making change, and it's time we be the change that we're demanding."

Protesters met for a teach-in, part of the student walkout organized by Occupy members.

Roughly 50 gathered on the brisk, clear morning to express their concerns with the public-education system in the United States. Speakers voiced their concerns on tuition hikes, corporate influence on public universities, and student debt.

Speakers at the event ranged from students to faculty, including David Osterberg, a UI clinical associate professor of occupational and environmental health.

"The University of Iowa actually gets less money now from the state than it did in 1998," said Osterberg, who is also the founder and executive director of the Iowa Policy Project, a nonprofit research organization.

He said the decrease in appropriations has caused universities to search for other means of funding.

"Tuition has gone up 227 percent in that amount of time," he said. "That's why there are bigger and bigger student loans out there."

Osterberg also expressed his frustration with what he called an unequal distribution of wealth in the United States.

"We are becoming a more unequal society," he said. "We are taking what used to be a middle-class, middle-income society, and [we've] turned it into two — the poor people and the very rich."

A study from Duke University published earlier this year showed the richest 20 percent of Americans have 84 percent of country's wealth.

Eva Roethler, a member of Occupy Iowa City's action committee, spoke about her personal struggle with student debt.

"I graduated into the worst job market the economy had seen since the Great Depression," she said.
"Here I am, three years later, still struggling to make my $1,000-a-month student-loan payments while working 60 hours a week in numerous jobs."

Roethler said she is particularly frustrated with Citibank's student-loan payment options.

"This bank, which received the third-largest bailout, won't let me consolidate my loans," she said. "It doesn't have income-based repayment options, it doesn't have graduated repayment options. I can't extend my repayment period, [and] it won't forgive my loans if I would happen to die."

Occupy movement members encouraged students to participate in a walkout — leaving during classes on Thursday morning — and meet on the Pentacrest, a nod to the frustration about the university system.

Zach Carter, a UI junior studying mechanical engineering, skipped his class to attend the teach-in.

"There are a lot of students who come out with more debt than they're going to have the ability to pay back, plain and simple," he said, and he's worried about his fellow students' earning power in the current job market.

"Not everybody can be an engineer or one of these high-paying jobs," he said. "They're left with the debt, which equals slavery."

A recent study from Demos — a public-policy research group based in New York — showed student debt has climbed steadily over at least the last 10 years. In 2001, Americans held more than $200 billion in student debt altogether. By 2011, that number had grown to more than $920 billion.

UI student Lisa Bonar, an active Occupy member, said she sides with Carter, and she is concerned about the cost of education and private student loans.

"I'm 44, and I'm still a student," she said. "I'm going to have to work for the rest of my life to pay back my student loans because there are no jobs."

Bonar said watching the job market crumble while she worked toward a degree was painful.

"I'm disgusted that I'm piling up a mountain of debt to get a degree that I was told would get me an awesome job — and now there are no jobs," she said. "I will have to work until the day I die because I believed there was an American dream."


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