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College students protest debt on "Trillion Dollar Day"

NEW YORK (Reuters) - College students held demonstrations in several U.S. cities on Wednesday to mark the day total U.S. student loan debt was expected to reach $1 trillion, with some burning student loan documents and others demanding a right to “debt-free degrees.”

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators participating in a street-theater production wear signs around their neck representing their student debt during a protest against the rising national student debt in Union Square, in New York, April 25, 2012. The protest eventually marched to Wall Street; two people were arrested during the protest. REUTERS/Andrew Burton

The demonstrations for “One Trillion Dollar Day” come as President Barack Obama was visiting colleges to push Congress to extend the low interest rates on college loans to more than 7.4 million students. If lawmakers fail to act, rates on the loans will double on July 1 to 6.8 percent.

Describing his own struggle to pay off college debt, Obama appeared at the University of Iowa at Iowa City on Wednesday to talk to students about his campaign to make education more affordable. He made similar appearances on Tuesday in North Carolina and Colorado.

Several hundred protesters, mostly college students wearing placards noting the size of their debt loads, rallied in New York City’s Union Square park on Wednesday.

They set fire to student debt documents and held signs reading “Debt free degrees” and “Education in America: Don’t bank on it.”

Hadi Nassar, 31, whose eight years of undergraduate and dental school education has left him $186,000 in debt, said he was having to rethink his plan to work at a community health clinic.

“It makes me angry. It makes me not want to do what I set out to do - which was, help people, take care of people,” said Nassar, a dental resident. “That type of job isn’t going to give me enough income, monthly, to pay this off.”

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Tyrone Dickerson, 24, said he was forced to drop out of college last year - having completed three-quarters of his human services degree at Cazenovia College in upstate New York - after he was told a grant would not be renewed.

Already $15,000 in debt, Dickerson said it did not seem worth it to borrow the additional money he would need to finish his education. He said he is looking into enrolling in a cheaper, public university.

“It was not worth it for a bachelor’s degree,” he said.

Protest organizers compared student debt, which now outpaces all forms of consumer debt, to the home loan bubble that touched off the 2008 financial crisis.

At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, about a dozen students demonstrated outside Memorial Library, soliciting signatures in the rain.

First-year law school student Lauren Adams, 25, said she will owe about $135,000 when she graduates from the university with a law degree. Adams expects to go into public interest law where the salaries are much less than salaries at private law firms.

“That debt is on my credit ... so it’s going to be really hard to get an affordable mortgage to buy a house,” she said, standing outside the law school building on Bascom Hill. “It really concerns me.”

Protest organizer Katie Zaman, a Wisconsin Ph.D. student in sociology with $111,000 in debt waiting for her when she graduates in three years, suggested the federal government forgive all student loan debt, especially after bailing out big banks that had lost huge sums because of risky investments.

“It’s not going to be worth it. I might as well have not come to graduate school. I might as well be working at Starbucks right now,” said the 35-year-old single mother, who has two graduate degrees.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, has said he also supports the interest rate extension. But he has said the Obama administration is at fault for an economy in which half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed.

Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Madison; editing by Mary Wisniewski and Mohammad Zargham