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Kansas City Art Institute Students Have Fun With Student-Loan Debt

Courtesy Jahaira Aguilar
People who come to Debt Day carnival at the Kansas City Art Institute can have their financial tarot cards read.

Nothing gets people thinking about the college student-loan debt like a carnival.

That’s what two Kansas City Art Institute students determined, anyway. So they're putting on Debt Day, a carnival with games, prizes, entertainment, food, a dunk tank and slip-and-slide and other shenanigans on the lawn of their school.

Credit Courtesy Jahaira Aguilar
Kansas City Art Institute students making prizes for the Debt Day carnival.

Jahaira Aguilar and Andrew Lattner, seniors in the painting department, came up with the idea during a class last semester called Radical Optimism, the Art of Possibility. Their instructor, Julia Cole, tasked them with creating what Cole described as “some kind of work that would connect people to new ways of thinking about problematic issues.”

Aguilar and Lattner decided to approach the depressing national problem with humor.

“We started to think of the idea with a sense of celebration: Students will continue going to school and investing in their future despite the cost of tuition,” Aguilar explains. “We saw it as a way to have a light-hearted discussion about our student loan debt while trying to embrace the reality of that.”

The approach may be light-hearted, but that doesn’t mean the humor can’t be dark (they're artists, after all).

That means instead of grabbing dollars bills in the money machine wind tunnel, people try to catch tuition-payment requests.

And people can still jump around in the Goldman Sachs sack race — the sacks just won't all be of equal sizes.

Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Andrew Lattner and Jahaira Aguilar organized Debt Day.

“One of my favorites is the financial card readings,” Aguilar says. “It’s a performance. I don’t want to exploit any people who are actually in the practice of psychic palm reading. But we have a student who has a crystal ball and different tarot cards.”

Aguilar and Lattner wanted to do a project that would bring together students from all departments as well as the community.

“So we started looking for things we all had in common,” Aguilar says. “Student loan debt seemed to be the common factor, also with faculty and outside KCAI.”

Aguilar and Lattner are both in their mid-twenties, so they’ve had a bit of real-world financial experience in addition to their schooling. Aguilar says they hope Debt Day will make it easier to talk about a subject most students don’t even think about until the exit counseling they get from the financial aid office at graduation.

Credit Courtesy Jahaira Aguilar
A Debt Day pinata-making party in the painting department at the Kansas City Art Institute.

“That’s usually when you find out about the total amount you’ve borrowed and your repayment options,” Aguilar says, which reminds her of another aspect of the carnival: barkers who’ll carry forth on income-based repayment or what it means to defer loans.

Organizing such an event was not without costs. The students solicited donations from various artists, departments, the campus art store and elsewhere – Aguilar says Art Institute president Tony Jones ponied up a personal donation – and made the games and diversions with cheap materials.

“We’re using a lot of cardboard,” she says. “Also, plywood, two-by-fours, PVC pipe and spray paint.”

All of which raises an obvious question: Why spend those resources on a big – and free – party, when they might actually have helped a real student pay off some debt?

“We talked about that with so many people,” Aguilar says. “We’re raising this money, why not give it to one person as a scholarship? It’s not our responsibility to fix the problem. As much as we would like to donate money to students, that isn’t what this is about. This is about creating a conversation about what is exactly happening when you go to school, when you’re investing in your future, partaking in higher education.  We just want to start a dialogue about student debt.”

In other words, snow cones and cotton candy infused with thoughts of future monthly payments.

Kansas City Art Institute Debt Day Carnival, 2-6 p.m. Saturday, April 23, on the campus green, 4415 Warwick Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri, 64111.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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