Among the couple hundred protesters who gathered in Union Square Wednesday then marched down Broadway, beating drums and holding signs, one wore a black graduation robe with the number 40,000 printed on the back.
That's how many dollars protester Sue Meaney, owes the government and private lenders in student loans. Her daughter graduated from a state school in Pennsylvania in August and Meaney helped foot the bill for her education. She doesn't expect her daughter to be able to pay back lenders anytime soon. "She's doing the job she did without a college degree, which is being a waitress," she said.
Protesters with the Occupy movement and other groups marched in 20 cities nationwide Wednesday, from Washington to Madison, Wis., to Santa Cruz, Calif., to mark the moment at which the national student debt was expected to surpass $1 trillion. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York put the total at $870 billion, the Associated Press reported Tuesday, but acknowledged that other estimates are higher. According to the bank, 15 percent of Americans owe money for student loans and about two-thirds of the debt is held by people under 30.
"There's so much awareness about the issue now," said Kyle McCarthy, an organizer with the group Occupy Student Debt. "Every time I turn on the TV, especially in the last few days, it's 'Student debt, student debt! Don't double my rates!'"
President Barack Obama might have something to do with that. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Tuesday Obama talked about his own struggles with student debt, saying he and the first lady were still paying back their lenders eight years ago.
The appearance was part of a two-day tour of colleges with stops in Colorado and Iowa, states on the Democrats' must-win list. He's trying to get Congress to extend low-interest rates on college loans and he wants young voters to know about it.
The rates will double on July 1 to 6.8 percent unless Congress comes up with a solution. Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney also called on Congress to keep the rates low.
McCarthy said he's been involved with the Occupy movement since it started, and has been upset about student loans for longer than that. He graduated from the University of San Francisco in 2007, then badly injured his knee just as the first bills arrived. "It all came crashing down," he said. "Thousands of dollars in medical bills, tens of thousands in student loans … It was like a spiderweb."
He formed Occupy Student Debt in early October and has worked with about a dozen other progressive groups, including Change.org, MoveOn and Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH.
The Occupy movement hasn't exactly been a cheerleading squad for the president (or any politician), but Natalia Abrams, an organizer with the group Occupy Colleges, said she was mostly pleased by his attention to the issue. "I think anytime the president is talking about this, it's a good thing," she said.
"Of course, as an educational activist I want to see more," she added.