Imagine attending college without emptying your wallet. Imagine the feeling of being free from ever-increasing student debt once you graduate.
Sounds like a dream, right? According to one man, this dream may soon become a reality. Steve Santos Belo has been an adjunct instructor of New Student Seminar at Montclair State University for four years now. He holds a Bachelors degree in Biblical Studies and a masters in Public Administration. In December 2015, he will have finished a second masters in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary.
With this education comes a price, literally. Belo has over $100,000 to pay back once he graduates. “I think this is a significant issue, not just for me, but for anyone who has a large debt to pay back”, he said.
Monthly payments to Sallie Mae can be as large as the cost of an apartment. Belo sees this as one of the main reasons that students move back in with their parents upon graduating. “[Student debt] prevents you from having the kind of personal, social and recreational experiences that allow you to flourish as a human being,” Belo said.
He believes that, if debt wasn’t such an issue, more people would be willing to travel the world, get involved in local politics, volunteer with a nonprofit, share their resources and even save money.
On the first day of his semester, Steve told the students in his New Student Seminar class that college could be about earning a degree or it could be about gaining and implementing the skills for higher-level learning in order to change society. He then brought up the College for All Act, legislation that is currently in Congress which would make all four-year, public colleges and universities tuition free.
“Obviously this has direct implications for current and future students at [Montclair State],” Belo said. After Belo explained this to his class, a student approached him and told him that she wanted to do something about this.
The following week, Belo told students that he would facilitate a conversation outside of class about what it would look like to organize for tuition free education at Montclair State. At the interest meeting, 15 students attended. At the next meeting, 26 students attended and, by the third, there were about 40 students in attendance.
Since then, students have been gathering in the lobby of University Hall or in front of the Student Center to raise awareness about minimizing student debt. You can see these students handing out information cards and even playing instruments for the cause. “Throughout this process, student leaders have emerged and the expression Tuition Free Us has solidified as a phrase to describe the desire and pursuit of tuition free college at [Montclair State] and in the United States,” Belo said.
This student group is now considering pursuing charter status as an official student organization of the Student Government Association. It also plans on participating in the #MillionStudentMarch, a nationally coordinated rally and march that is already scheduled to take place in over 75 universities and college campuses including Rutgers, William Paterson, Rowan, Ramapo and Union County College. The event takes place on Thursday, November 12 at 12 p.m.
Belo believes this is a community effort that cannot be accomplished alone. He and the student group that follows will continue their fight to raise awareness for free college tuition.
For more information, contact TuitionFreeUs@gmail.com or find them on social media @TuitionFreeUs.