The youth agenda

The ‘American Dream’ is indefinable, but one description that gets close is someone who, despite legal and economic hardships, utilizes the best of themselves to succeed and prosper on their own accord.  The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act benefits those who do just that.  It is a bill that would allow undocumented students who were brought to the U.S. as minors, have no criminal record, and graduated from high school despite enormous odds to earn their legal status through a college education or military service.  Through encouraging some of the best and brightest immigrant youth to come out of the shadows and help build this country back to greatness, the DREAM Act would grow our economy by leaps and bounds.  It is estimated that those who would gain legal residency through the DREAM Act would generate about $1.38 trillion in lifetime earnings, according to the UCLA North American Integration and Development Center.  To context that amount, we’ve spent less money on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since September 11, 2001.  This bill would facilitate commercial spending and generate taxable revenue at an enormous rate, not to mention increase the human capitol gained by investing in some of the most capable immigrant youth instead of subjecting them to deportations, harassment, and poverty.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) promised to bring the DREAM Act up for a vote during the lame duck session; students nationwide call on Senator Reid to keep his word and for the Senate at large to pass the DREAM Act.

All one hears in the media and from elected officials today is “jobs, jobs, jobs!”  While the immediate unemployment crisis is certainly dire, higher education investment is one of the only things stopping another jobs catastrophe in eight years.  According to a recent Georgetown University report, the U.S. will have approximately 22 million new jobs for college-educated workers in 2018; however, based on current graduation rates, we will be about eight million Americans short of filling them all.  Imagine that, in just eight years there will be eight million jobs available to workers going unfilled because our elected officials today chose not to make prudent, fiscally responsible budgetary decisions, opting instead for politically expedient, irrational education budget cuts.  Last spring, the federal government invested $40 billion into federal aid programs, helping to mitigate the rising cost of college.  However, the Georgetown study found that over $100 billion more for higher education from state governments is needed to prevent the next jobs crisis.  Yet instead of working to provide students with the education needed to fill these jobs, over thirty state governments have made plans to make further, deeper cuts to their higher education budgets in fiscal year 2011.  Fiscal responsibility isn’t tantamount to just budget cuts and deficit reduction, it’s also about long-term planning that invests in the posterity of our nation.  State legislatures across the country should fund financial aid and higher education budgets at least to levels necessary to meet the growing demands for college-educated jobs.

America is becoming a nation of debtors, something that harms this country both as a collective and as individuals.  Earlier this year, student loans surpassed credit cards as the leading vehicle of debt plaguing the U.S.  The average student borrower now owes nearly $25,000 in student debt, and the situation is much worse for students of color.  92 percent of black students rely on financial aid to go to college and 69 percent don’t graduate because of costs.  49 percent of Latinos forego or delay college because of costs.  This sort of debt and cost is terrible for the growth of the U.S. economy.  College graduates already swamped with debt aren’t able to take the financial risks that have traditionally fostered middle-class mobility, such as buying a home, starting a family, or taking a dream job versus one that just pays the bills.  A major reason for this unprecedented rise in student debt is the fundamental shift financial aid programs have undergone in recent years.  During the 1991-92 academic year, loans and grants comprised 36 and 61 percent of financial aid, respectively; in the 2007-08 academic year, loans and grants totaled 49 and 45 percent of aid, respectively.  While lawmakers sat idly by, our financial aid system has, in just a few years, gone from a one primarily based on grants to one based on loans.  The Pell grant, once the cornerstone of federal aid, has had its purchasing power plummet as it has gone from covering 72 percent of the cost of college in 1976 to just 32 percent in 2008.  Due to decades of underfunding, the program now faces a nearly $6 billion shortfall, threatening the college education of millions of low-income students.  The GI Bill and other essential programs have been stripped of their value in the name of political immediacy.  Congress must make higher education a top priority right now, including making the Pell grant a mandatory spending program.  If our nation is to progress socially and economically, college graduates’ incomes must remain in the hands of college graduates rather than the bank accounts of private lenders.

The DREAM Act, funding for college access and affordability, and fighting the rise in student debt are all fiscally responsible, socially uplifting policies Congress can address right now that will have highly positive outcomes immediately and for years to come.  Passing this youth agenda will take financial wisdom, political courage, and common sense governing, but even in times as dynamic as these it is possible for cool-heads to prevail with sound policies.  The United States Student Association, the nation’s oldest, largest, and most inclusive student organization, calls on Congress to put aside partisan blunders and get down to the governing that is so desperately needed by this nation’s young people.  An investment in the nation’s youth is an investment in the immediate and future prosperity of the United States.

Lindsay McCluskey is the president of the United States Student Association.