Want to Fight Student Debt? Vote #UnionYes

American student debt has reached a crisis point. At nearly $1.4 trillion, student debt burdens graduates for years; and has long-term, deleterious effects on the American economy.

One might hope that Harvard, with its $37 billion endowment, could shield its students from debt. Yet for students at Harvard’s professional schools, high student debt is the norm. For instance, over the past three years, Masters in Public Policy (MPP) students at the Kennedy School have graduated with an average of $65,000 in student debt. Members of the Harvard Medical School Class of 2017 graduated with $105,000 in debt, and members of the Harvard Law School Class of 2017 graduated with a whopping average of $160,000 in debt. Many of Harvard’s professional schools offer loan repayment programs to help graduates manage these high debt burdens and enable graduates to pursue public interest careers. Yet too often, these loan repayment programs fail to meet graduates’ needs. Harvard students are acutely aware of the burden that debt places upon us; at 1L orientation this past year, when asked what we were most stressed about regarding law school, our fellow 1Ls overwhelmingly said that they were most stressed about student loan debt.

Since last October, we we have worked with the Coalition to Improve LIPP, an organization of HLS students and alumni advocating for changes to Harvard Law School’s loan repayment assistance program. The coalition seeks to make LIPP’s parental leave program universal; to increase the program’s flexibility so that graduates can transition between jobs without facing egregious debt burdens; and to increase overall LIPP support so that recent graduates pursuing public interest and lower-paying work can support themselves and their families, rather than worry about paying off creditors.

Through working with the Coalition, we have seen the power of students coming together to advocate for our financial security. On April 18th-19th, we are excited to vote #UnionYes because by forming a union, students at HLS and across Harvard will gain a powerful new avenue to secure university policy changes that will lighten our debt burdens and enable us to pursue the careers of our choosing.

At many of the universities where student workers have formed unions, they have secured significant gains on issues of tuition and debt through union contracts and collective action. For instance, graduate student workers in the University of California system secured a program whereby professional school students working as teaching assistants receive large tuition reductions in exchange for their work. The graduate student union at the University of Washington lobbied the state legislature for historic tuition cuts. Graduate student unions also have won waivers of fees for registration, maintenance of matriculation, and more.

By unionizing with the Harvard Graduate Students Union – UAW, graduate student workers will gain a seat at the table when the administration makes decisions that impact student debt and other aspects of our economic well-being. We will also gain an organization of around 5,000 student workers across the university who can effectively advocate for the issues that are most important to us. Moreover, by working with the United Auto Workers, which represents over 60,000 academic workers around the country, we can amplify our voices in calling for national policy changes to reduce student debt and make higher education more affordable. A graduate student union will be a uniquely powerful vehicle to ensure that students of all backgrounds can afford to study, work, and live at Harvard.

There are many, many reasons to vote #UnionYes on April 18-19. By organizing with the Harvard Graduate Students Union, we can improve university health and mental health services; combat sexual harassment and assault; and increase protections for international students. Through forming a union, we can also tackle student debt. To our fellow student workers — we hope you will join us vote #UnionYes so that together, we can build a better Harvard.

Kwame Newton and Rachel Sandalow-Ash are 1Ls. They are on the board of the Coalition to Improve LIPP.

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