More than 5,000 students participated in walkouts Oct. 5.

Within a week of launching Occupy Colleges, a group in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protests, more than 100 U.S. campuses had offshoots of the national movement. That would have been impossible, organizers said, without Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook groups and Twitter accounts have cropped up across higher education since the beginning of October, when Occupy Colleges launched its website and invited schools of every size to join the burgeoning protests against corporate excesses, including rising tuition and growing student loan debt that leaves many graduates with hefty monthly payments in a stagnant job market.

Student organizers said they expected students at 140 campuses – from community colleges to research universities – to launch protests Oct. 13, a week after more than 5,000 students from 80 schools participated in a walkout as Occupy Wall Street continued its protests at Zuccotti Park in New York City.

The ubiquity of internet-accessible smart phones and the prevalence of Twitter and Facebook accounts on college campuses helped activists spread the Occupy protests to campuses across the country faster than perhaps any movement before, said Natalia Abrams, a University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) alum who has helped facilitate local Occupy Colleges groups.

“The beauty of this movement is the convergence of social media and face-to-face interaction,” Abrams said. “There’s really no way I could ever get the word out to that many people in such a short period of time. Facebook and Twitter have been absolutely essential in that way … and we’re going to keep using them and fighting indefinitely.”

Occupy Colleges’ Facebook page has more than 4,000 “likes” and its Twitter account has about 3,000 followers.

Social networking and other online communication has been a cornerstone of the movement born from the original Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. On its website, Occupy Colleges tells student protesters that it’s “vital” to record video, take photos, and post the images on the group’s officials website.

“It is important to document your protests,” the website said.

In a letter to the 140 campuses that pledged to participate in the demonstrations, Occupy Colleges organizers remind protesters that the cause goes beyond exorbitant tuition hikes and crushing loan payments.

“This is bigger than just rising tuition fees. Occupy Wall Street is focused on the effects of corporate greed brought on by corporate person-hood. Once we get the money from Wall Street out of politics we as students will see direct improvements in our lives,” the letter said.

The national student loan default rate jumped from 7 percent to 8.8 percent this year, according to a September report released by the U.S. Department of Education (ED). The default rate among students who attended for-profit college is considerably higher: 15 percent, up from 11 percent.

Ericka Hoffman, a junior at California State University (CSU) Bakersfield and an Occupy Colleges protest facilitator, said college students’ constant checking of their Twitter and Facebook feeds has proved critical to growing the movement in higher education.

With nearly instant web-based communication, Hoffman said, organizers can rally students quickly and spread the message virally.

“People are so consumed with [social media], so when they start to notice us, they are inclined to spread the word, especially if they agree with the message,” she said.

CSU Bakersfield organizers used Facebook to recruit members to make phone calls about charges of police brutality at Occupy demonstrations. Hoffman said students responded to the Facebook request for help within minutes.

Hoffman said “98 percent” of the group’s Twitter messages have been positive, and that students from across the political spectrum have, at the very least, shown support for the demonstrations, even if they don’t join the protests.

“No matter what political orientation they are, I think students are coming together and realizing something has to change here,” she said. “We’ve gone from valuing people to valuing corporations, and people are starting to see that now.”

College Republicans said they have tracked the Occupy groups on Twitter and Facebook this month, but haven’t used the social sites to gather student groups who oppose the Occupy message.

“I don’t think this movement means anything, so I don’t know what I’d be counter-protesting,” said Mark Ciavola, president of the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) College Republicans and state chair of the state’s College Republicans. “The whole movement is a joke, frankly … and I just don’t think it’s worth our time.”

UNLV doesn’t have its own Occupy Colleges offshoot. Ciavola said the group Occupy Las Vegas has used UNLV’s campus as a meeting place after hours.

Twitter and Facebook have served as effective recruitment tools for Occupy Colleges protesters and organizers, Ciavola said, but using the popular platforms has drawn an undesirable crowd.

“I think social media hurts their cause because it turns out people who come and don’t know why they’re there,” he said. “They don’t know what the government does or how the economy works. [Social media] gets people out there, but the people they’re turning out are not good spokespeople for their cause.”

Republican representatives and conservative pundits have lashed out at the Occupy demonstrators, often criticizing college students for directing their dissatisfaction toward Wall Street instead of Congress.

Lawmakers’ decision to increase federal student aid to almost $150 billion annually has benefited colleges and universities while contributing to higher tuition costs, wrote Neal McCluskey, associate director of the conservative Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

“The feds have been blasting helium into the college-cost bubble, enabling profits — which, if driven by undistorted demand, could be good — to balloon at the expense of students and taxpayers,” McCluskey wrote.

The solution, McCluskey wrote, is in direct opposition to what many Occupy Colleges protesters are calling for: Reducing tuition tax deductions, Pell Grants, and “cheap student loans.”

“The outcry would be that this will hurt students, an objection that would probably issue loudly from the people raging against the financial machine,” he wrote. “But it would do the opposite, forcing schools to keep their prices in line with the real cost of providing education, and saving both students and taxpayers big bucks.”

Abrams from Occupy Colleges said the conservative criticism of Occupy demonstrators ignores the jobs crisis hurting students and recent graduates.

“Some people on the right are saying to just get jobs, but [the jobs] aren’t out there, or they’re jobs we should’ve had in high school, not after going to college and getting an education,” she said.

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