A Sleeping Class

Young Americans fight for every cause but their own. Wake up, already.

Scenes from a would-be revolution: On April 5, Maryland state legislators viewed a documentary, Bob & Me, starring Timothy Daly, the 22-year-old student government president of the University of Maryland. Modeled on Michael Moore's Roger & Me, the film features a similarly zaftig Daly pursuing Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich for answers about his $120 million cut to the university system's budget and tuition hikes of 34 to 54 percent in the last four years.

"We wanted to hold these people accountable for what they are doing," says Daly, who graduated two weeks ago with over $30,000 in debt. "Over the years students have been a very apathetic group. We're starting to get a lot more involved now, and it's a very exciting time."

Bob & Me doesn't confront only Maryland politicians; it's a lone signal flare over dark waters, challenging 18-to 34-year-olds nationwide to start sticking up for themselves. Not for a decade have politicians made a serious effort to address young people as voters, and in that time they've really put the screws to us, cutting student aid, standing by while education costs soar and more and more of us scrape by without health insurance or a permanent job. The response, from the "Rock the Vote" generation, has been . . . nothing. Less voting, more apathy, and little in the way of protest beyond the occasional sit-in when student activity fees go up. At this rate, we're more likely to save the redwoods than ourselves.

illustration: Viktor koen

Frustratingly few young people seem to recognize their shared interests across the lines of class, education level, and ethnicity. Now, in this election season, a few people have stopped hitting the snooze button. Josh Green, a 25-year-old Harvard grad student, co-founded the 2020 Democrats in 2002. His 1,500-member group is working on long-range policy ideas while raising generational consciousness. "We've started to wake up to the fact that the baby boom generation is saddling us with an extraordinary set of problems," he says. "They're enriching themselves with tax cuts, and if we don't make our voices heard, we're literally going to be paying the bills. I would say that besides class and race, there's starting to be a generational cleavage in this country."

The numbers back Josh up. Tuition at public colleges is up 47 percent since 1993, and the increase is landing disproportionately on students' shoulders. Grants used to make up half of all school aid; now they make up just over 40 percent. The average undergraduate debt in 2002 was $18,900. Right now, the picture is getting yet worse: Republican lawmakers are talking about saving money by eliminating the low guaranteed rates students lock in when they consolidate unbearable debt. Variable rates put borrowers at the mercy of the market, and by some estimates individuals would pay $5,484 more in interest on a typical $17,000 loan. Hitting seniors in their pockets like that would cause a revolt.

Most cruelly, young people are incurring these unprecedented levels of debt in order to gain admission to a world of middle-class comfort that may not be waiting for them, now or ever. As this year's grads step off the commencement stage, they face the highest unemployment rate of any age group, and are the most likely to be popping echinacea in lieu of a health plan; their average $2,000-plus credit-card debt will stick with them longer than Petrarch's sonnets.

Why don't young people yet realize they constitute a class at a systemic disadvantage? Luis Gomez and Eddy Rivera are working on it. They're student organizers for the Student Liberation Action Movement at Hunter College, which until recently dominated student government there. SLAM! protests the painful fee hikes City University of New York schools have seen in the past few years, advocating for the right to an education. "More and more of the people we're trying to reach, those directly affected, are the ones not here: the students who can't afford it," says Rivera.

A militant and vocal minority at the school, SLAM! activists are sometimes seen as kooks by the very students they champion. "Many people support the cause even if they have the means to an education—they see their friends dropping out for a semester to save the cash to go back next semester," says Gomez. "But most of our students just want to graduate. They're commuter students, hustling, single parents." The more young people have on their minds, the less time they have to do something about it.

There is no clear line anymore between "college" and "non-college" youth. College students are more likely to be struggling counter girls than spoiled frat boys (cough—George W.—cough). Today's students are older—nearly half are over 25—and more diverse than ever. They are more likely to be employed—69 percent in 1995 versus 36 percent in 1973—and they work more hours than in previous decades. Because of higher fees, more students attend school part-time or take two-year degrees. The average time to a bachelor's degree for those who start at two-year schools is almost six years.

Meanwhile, the Kerry campaign estimates that in the past three years 220,000 people nationwide were not able to afford public universities. The Community College League of California estimates 165,000 in that state passed up enrollment or dropped out.

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