The average amount of debt carried by a student after graduating from college was $18,650 in 2004, according to government statistics. By 2008, it had risen to more than $23,000, a trend expected to continue.
"Every four years, it goes up," HCC student Nicole Ouimette told a standing-room only crowd in the Picknelly Dining Room Monday afternoon. "We can only guess what it will be in 2012 or 2016."
Ouimette is president of a new HCC club called SAAVE-Students for Affordable, Accessible and Valuable Education. Yesterday's rally, billed as a "student speak-out," was the club's first public event, which featured several speakers who talked about the student debt crisis and cuts to public education.
"The data isn't meant to scare you," Ouimette said. "It's meant to make you concerned, a little upset and motivated."
Penelope Herideen, HCC professor of sociology, said student debt in the United States has now reached more than $1 trillion, which is higher than the nation's credit card debt. Herideen argued that student debt is not just an individual issue, but a social issue as well. Increased costs of education force more students to turn to public universities and community colleges, but, at the same time, the economic crisis leads legislators to cut funds to public education, forcing students to take on more and more debt.
While student debt has always been viewed a good thing-"good debt and a good investment, "she said-students are drowning in it. Surveys have shown that worries about money have led to an increase in anxiety and depression among college graduates faced with high debt and limited employment prospects.
"Student debt is a political, economic and cultural issue," she said.
According to Ken Haar, professor of education at Westfield State University, Massachusetts leads the nation in cuts to public higher education over the last five years. The attitude of legislators during hard economic times, he said, is that colleges and universities can take care of themselves, raising their own revenue by increasing tuition and fees.
"By doing so," he said, "they are essentially raising taxes on a very small segment of the population. They are raising taxes on you."
Haar also talked about a state organization called PHENOM-Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, which he serves as treasurer and Westfield Chapter president. "What we do is go out and fight for public education," he said. "What we need to do is wake the sleeping giant, you all here in this room."
He urged the more than 130 students, staff and administrators in the room to join the fight, by writing letters to legislators and the governor and local newspapers supporting public higher education. He also invited the crowd to a Nov. 2 PHENOM march in Boston that will begin at the Federal Reserve building and end at the State House, with speakers and rallies on the common.
"If we can awake the sleeping giant, we can make a huge difference here in the state," he said. "If we can do that, we can make the promise of public education work for you."
Photos: (Left) HCC student Nicole Ouimette talks about the student debt crisis in the United States. (Right) A student asks a question during the event.