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Debt ‘carnival’ highlights high college costs

Institute advances zero college debt with demonstrations

Trea Lavery
Debt ‘carnival’ highlights high college costs
Acrobats perform at Ashburton Place to highlight rising college debt. PHOTO: TREA LAVERY

In the open space at the corner of Ashburton Place and Somerset Street in Downtown Boston, right outside Suffolk University, a stilts walker, a unicyclist and a carnival barker seemed to be celebrating something Thursday afternoon —unless you listened closely to what the barker was saying.

“Raise your hand if you love student debt!” he shouted at passersby. None took him up on the offer.

The small carnival last week was organized by the Hildreth Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for zero-debt college, to highlight the rising tuition costs of private universities in Boston and around the country.

“Student debt doesn’t just affect you in terms of dollars and cents. It affects people in terms of life choices,” said Bob Hildreth, who founded the organization last year, explaining that often, recent graduates will choose jobs based on whether the salary will allow them to pay off student loans. “That’s not a good reason to pick your profession.”

Hildreth created the foundation after he spent time working with families on college financial literacy through his other organization, Inversant. He realized that many working-class families were unable to get ahead of their student debt regardless of how much they knew about it.

In addition to Suffolk University, Hildreth’s traveling “Sky-High Tuition Carnival” visited Boston University, Northeastern University, Boston College and Tufts University, many of which have recently announced increases in their tuition and fees for the next school year. Suffolk will increase its tuition by 4 percent; Boston University by 3.6 percent; Boston College by 3.97 percent; and Tufts by 3.8 percent. Northeastern has not made an announcement yet.

“Coming from an immigrant, low-socioeconomic background, conversations about affording college were nonexistent,” said Jefferson Agyapong, a junior at Boston College who participated in the demonstration. “This dream sounds amazing until I realized that in order to afford Boston College’s $76,000 tuition, I am required to take loans, forcing me into debt before I even have a chance to start a career.”

He added, “How can I use the higher education system to elevate my status, when it is the same system stopping me from progressing?”

Kylie O’Donnell, a freshman at Tufts University who helped organize the carnival, said that she has already felt the pressure of high tuition, but had also met people at the carnival who were dealing with student debt much further into their careers after graduating.

“A lot of people don’t even realize it impacts their lives,” O’Donnell said. “It’s sad to see full-blown adults in thousands of dollars of debt.”

Hildreth said the goal of the carnival was to raise awareness about the growing problem, especially among current students who haven’t yet started making student loan payments and therefore may not realize the difficult years of repayment ahead.

“We’re trying to get students to look at student debt as a serious issue while they’re still in college,” Hildreth said. “I believe until students become really active and protest student debt, there won’t be any solution.”

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