Occupy URI forum addresses high college costs, tax disparities

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KINGSTON, R.I. – February 9, 2012 – Danielle Dirocco is furious “that money has a louder voice than I do, and I am the one with the vocal cords. I am bitter that the assurance of better opportunities that come with a college degree appear to be an empty promise. I am worried about the implication of more than $1 trillion in student loan debt.”

She also wonders what has happened to the American dream.

The graduate student in political science at the University of Rhode Island and many others raised questions about the America of today during an Occupy URI forum that attracted about 75 people to the Lippitt Hall auditorium Tuesday afternoon. Most were faculty, students and staff, but there were others from the greater community.

Dirocco, who offered the opening remarks, also said the only alternatives for many students is to take on burdensome student loans or to forgo an education altogether.

“I worry that student loan debt might be the next economic bubble to burst and if that happens, make no mistake, you and I, or my fellow students here, will be left holding the bag,” Dirocco said.

In the 2004-2005 academic year, tuition and mandatory fees at URI were $6,752 for an in-state student, while in the current academic year, tuition and fees are $11,366.

Richard McIntyre, URI economics professor and director of the Honors Program, said the issue is not about greed. He said the richest 1 percent of Americans are not more greedy than the rest of the country.

“They are not nastier than we are, and they don’t have bad bathroom habits,” he said as the audience snickered and smiled. “They pet their dogs. They love their children. The difference is that they are just really organized and have for the last 30 years pursued an agenda that basically involves redistributing everyone’s wealth and income to them.”

McIntyre said it has been an enormously effective agenda and he went on to discuss what such an agenda means for university communities. “The cost of a University education in the United States has risen by about 260 percent over the last 30 years; that is in real terms above the rate of inflation.

“Tuition and fees have gone up, but our ability to pay has not. Real wages have not grown in 30 years. How could that be? We are ever so much more productive than we used to be. Productivity has gone up dramatically, but wages have not grown. If productivity goes way up and wages have not grown, what must be happening? Profits have exploded, for merchants, bankers, industrialists, owners of land. All of the benefits of rising productivity in the last 30 years have been brought to those owners of capital.”

McIntyre said Americans have tried to cope with that by working more hours, sending more family members into the workforce and borrowing money.

“So the situation is that the cost of an education has exploded, but the ability to pay for that education has not grown at all,” he said. “Why is it that we have a society in which all of the benefits of working smarter and harder go to a very small number of people and what can we do about that?”

The second big issue is the state’s contribution to the University, which has dropped dramatically, McIntyre said. In real dollar terms, the state’s contribution to the University of Rhode Island has fallen 46 percent since 2002, according to McIntyre.

“We’re told get an education, we need to become more educated, become more competitive, become more skilled,” McIntyre said. “My income has not grown, and the cost is going up and the state is decreasing its contribution. Something is rotten in Providence, something is rotten in the state, and something is rotten in Washington.”

One student took exception to the common refrain that the wealthy should be taxed more and told the audience about her immigrant grandfather, who became a millionaire. “He worked very hard, and had no college education,” she said. “He started out selling Christmas trees. Now he talks about how much he is taxed. This kind of discussion is destructive and hurtful.”

Margarida da Graca, who earned her bachelor’s degree in communication studies at URI and is now pursuing her master’s degree in college student personnel, came to this country with her family in 1988.

“One thing my parents always told me was education was first, that was it, it wasn’t working. I have always valued education, and it was never a question for me to go to college,” da Graca said.

“But it was disheartening for me in my previous job working with students in a college access program, as we went over loan forms. This education they want to attain will cost them more than they can even imagine. I came here because we understand the value of education, and we are told numerous times that without it we can’t progress, we can’t move up the ladder.”

Da Graca said the hard part is access, and students are asking how can they take out loans when they will struggle to pay them back or not be able to repay them at all.

“It’s hard for me to say yes, it’s your college education, it’s your investment in yourself. When do you stop thinking about the investment and start thinking about the debt? It is important to recognize it has to be affordable for students.”

She said it is harder and harder for disadvantaged students to gain access to college. “They can’t afford it and loans are only making it worse.”

Professor Lynne Derbyshire, chair of the Department of Communication Studies, and the moderator of the event said more actions are being planned, including the nationwide Occupy Colleges and Universities events Feb. 22 and 23. Another teach-in is being discussed but there are no details yet. Those interested can go to the group’s Facebook page, Occupy URI.