At a time when high unemployment coincides with an all-time high in student debt, it’s unsurprising that students are an important demographic at the Occupy Wall Street (#OWS) protests. According to the New York Times, over 20 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed, and of those who do have jobs nearly a third have positions that do not require a college degree. These conditions are symptoms of an ailing economy, which the protesters argue has been exacerbated–if not caused–by Wall Street institutions. Some have remarked that #OWS has galvanized young people more effectively than existing labor unions, perhaps due to the inclusive nature of the protests and its anti-leadership mentality.
On Wednesday October 5th, a major walk-out joined students with other protesters at Foley Square, followed by a march to Zuccotti park, often referred to by its former name, Liberty Square. The demonstration attracted students of all ages from a diverse range of institutions. High school students from around the city marched side-by-side with college students from the CUNY and SUNY systems, Columbia University, The New School, New York University, Cooper Union and many others.
The coordination of campuses across the city with major labor unions was not only an important moment for students expressing solidarity with each other, but also for the #OWS movement as a whole. Students at all levels have found institutional support from teachers unions and university professors. The United Federation of Teachers is supporting the movement, along with other major union groups. According to The Occupied Wall Street Journal, a crowd-funded newspaper, 137 faculty members marched from The New School alone.
Student involvement with #OWS reaches much deeper than last week’s walk-outs. I spent yesterday talking with the protesters gathered in Zuccotti park, and learned that many students have been camped out in the park. Jonathan, a student at Kingsborough College, spent several nights there before the walk-out. “I didn’t realize it was a walk-out,” he said, adding that one of his friends was arrested after jumping over a police barricade during Wednesday’s demonstration.
The loosely organized protest, which describes itself as leaderless and democratic, has yet to make any official demands. The foremost goal of the demonstration is to highlight the growing economic inequality that exists both in the United States and globally, and to create a space for discussion. Each individual brings to the demonstration his or her own set of demands and hopes, and students are no different. However, all the students I spoke with (and parents who participated in the conversation) argued that the cost of education needs to be much, much lower.
“Education needs to be made affordable–by some kind of general consensus,” said Frankie, a young man from Long Beach. He will be moving to Amsterdam to study graphic design in the fall, where he says his education will be much less expensive than in the U.S. Jonathan told me he’s not sure that he will be able to finish his degree at Kingsborough because his financial aid has been cut.
Some of the protesters feel that all levels of education should be free. Kat, who’s attending a community college program in California, traveled to New York to participate in #OWS. She said that free online courses are paving the way towards this kind of access, pulling out her Android phone to demonstrate how she’s keeping up with her course work from across the country. “Some of the professors teaching these online classes are from UCLA. I’m getting the same lectures virtually for free.”
Other students expressed concern that budget cuts are leading to the disappearance of programs. Many expressed anger that so much government spending is going towards missiles and wars, while education programs are being cut and schools are being forced to consolidate.
Until more formal demands are made by demonstrators of Occupy Wall Street, it’s unclear how many and to what degree these changes are possible. Nonetheless, it seems vital that these kinds of discussions include students, who arguably have the most at stake in the future of this country’s economy.