Student Debt Protesters Crush Annual College Financial Aid Officer Gathering

NEW ORLEANS – The beer-soaked streets leading to Jackson Square in that city’s historic French Quarter came alive Monday night with signature revelry – and a short-lived, albeit chaotic, debate over student loan debt.

“They’re coming,” a man in a full alligator costume shouted from his bike. “They are two blocks away.”

With this warning, several dozen student activists, strategically staged at a local bar, finished their drinks, gathered their protest signs and braced for action.

Target? Hundreds of college financial aid officers paraded – with Mardi Gras beads, a marching band, and a police escort – through the French Quarter to celebrate the end of the second day of their annual rally here.

“No cuts, no fees, education should be free,” protesters from the Occupy-inspired Student Debt Collective repeatedly chanted, throwing counterfeit money at financial aid officers and interrupting their parade with music.

The protest, which lasted less than an hour, took place during the annual meeting of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, known as NASFAA. What is typically a wacky lecture filled with sessions on the mechanics of Department of Education data systems, the intricacies of federal student aid regulations, and best practices for managing financial aid offices was animated by the physical and social demonstrations of Debt Collective here.

The group released their message on a Twitter parody Account (below) which appeared to be sanctioned by NASFAA, and issued a blog post claiming that his debt-free college proposal won the Great idea competition at the conference. (The real winner of the Best Policy Idea for Improving Student Aid competition will be announced on Tuesday.)

The Debt Collective said it wanted to “rain on the NASFAA parade” held in New Orleans. And their complaints were varied: corporate and Wall Street greed in lending, unfair lending, and predatory for-profit colleges.

Although NASFAA attendees are largely basic financial aid officers at colleges, its showroom is filled with a range of student loan-related companies, such as the Ministry’s contract loan services. of Education (Navient, Great Lakes, Nelnet, Fed Loan Servicing) and the largest private lenders, such as Sallie Mae, Wells Fargo and Discover.

Ann Larson, one of the organizers of the New York-based Debt Collective, said the group was trying to expand its campaign to Corinthian colleges and for-profit institutions to “tackle the systemic causes” of debt. students.

NASFAA, she said, “isn’t the problem, but they’re just a knot in the industry and a system that works against students. “

Earlier this year, the Debt Collective student loan debt strike federal loans owed by Corinthian students, in part, hurry the Obama administration to establish a debt relief process for these students and others in the same situation. The group does not believe these measures have gone far enough.

Protesters said their action here also targeted the Education Department, which is not a financial sponsor of the conference but sends a dozen departmental officials to brief financial aid officers on federal rules they must follow.

Dawn Lueck from California has attended the NASFAA conference regularly during her 13-year career as a corporate finance manager at for-profit colleges, first at the ITT Technical Institute, then at the Heald Middle School. She said she generally found it helpful to talk about industry best practices and fun to network with others.

On Monday, however, she returned to the conference as a Debt Collective protester.

“What we are protesting is what is not said here,” said Lueck, adding that she herself had over $ 100,000 in student loan debt outstanding. About half came from his associate’s degree at the ITT Technical Institute and his bachelor’s degree from the University of Phoenix. “The voice and perspective of the students is not there. “

“We are not directly attacking NASFAA,” said Sarah Dieffenbacher, a graduate of the Everest Institute in Lake Elisnore, Calif. “We are here to make our presence known.”

Another protester, Jessica King, objected to the expenses of hosting a large conference – colleges spend several hundred dollars for every employee to attend.

“Where do you think all this money is coming from?” It comes out of our pockets and out of taxpayers, ”she said. “They have this idea that they are helping us here. What do they do?”

King, 32, attended an Everest Institute in Newport News, Virginia. She said she was $ 33,000 in debt after completing a nine-month medical assistant program, which prevented her from finding employment in this field.

Several of the protesters were particularly critical of a NASFAA Event earlier in the day debating whether student loan debt amounted to a “crisis.”

After a panel of political analysts debated the issue, attendees voted on which side won the debate. A majority of participants voted to say that student loan debt, while possibly problematic, was not of critical magnitude.

Protesters said it shows how disconnected NASFAA members are from the burden of student loans on individual borrowers.

Justin Draeger, president of the association of financial aid officers, said he was “puzzled” why the group chose to protest the meeting.

“As far as I know they are advocating for a debt free education which is great. I admire that there is a grassroots effort to try to get a debt free education, ”he said. “But after seeing them trolling our Twitter account, stealing our logo and creating a fake account, their tactics kind of muddy their message.”

Draeger said the protesters’ message was misplaced at the financial aid conference.

“None of the colleges here get money from lenders or service providers,” he said. “This is not the right place, unless they are just using a high profile event to get their point across.”

He said financial aid officers were “on their side,” advocating for the cancellation of student debt displaced by Corinthian colleges. He pointed out that NASFAA has partnered with the California Department of Education to help former Corinthian students get the help they are entitled to.

In the wet streets of the French Quarter on Monday, Debt Collective protesters and financial aid officers were peaceful, if not polite to each other, with the exception of a few isolated clashes.

A woman in a NASFAA T-shirt was seen quickly grabbing the arm and pulling off her male companion, also wearing an association T-shirt, who gave a few loud protesters a middle finger throwing fake money.

Others were more perplexed by the protesters than anything else.

“Hey, we’re giving scholarships to students,” a man retorted to a group of protesters around him, looking puzzled. “I just don’t understand your point. “

About Sharon Joseph

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