A few days ago, I was talking to a friend about the reduction in hours at University Health Services, and at one point she said, “Well, we really shouldn’t complain, we’re still the lucky ones. Because we got to go to college, I mean.”
It was a throwaway comment, but it represented a view I’ve heard all too often – college students are lucky, college students are privileged, college students don’t know what it’s like in the “real world.”
Many students themselves believe it. But it is not true. It used to be true, decades ago, in our parents’ generation. For students in the 21st century, however, it is a myth. And it’s a myth that must be ended, because students who believe it are lulled into a false sense of security and at the same time discouraged from fighting for their rights.
There was a time when college was a gateway to a stable, well-paid professional career. Not anymore. Today it is a prerequisite for almost any career that pays a decent wage.
In 2007, 59 percent of all “prime-age workers” had a college education, and that figure is expected to rise to at least 63 percent in the six years, according to Georgetown University’s “Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018.”
If we want to talk about new jobs available to young people, the proportion that requires college is even higher. Going to college is not a ticket to wealth or even to a middle-income lifestyle. It is something you need to do just to avoid being poor.
And even then, it might not work. You can go to college and end up in poverty anyway. In 2011, the unemployment rate for college graduates was the highest in history, according to BankruptingAmerica.org. In January 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were almost 2 million unemployed people with a Bachelor’s Degree or higher.
Among recent graduates, the level of unemployment is truly staggering. Just over 22 percent of the class of 2009 did not have jobs in May 2011, according to The New York Times. That’s over one in five. And then there are the under-employed – college graduates who only manage to find part-time jobs, or who are employed in minimum wage jobs with no benefits. There are plenty of those, too.
Another 22 percent of the class of 2009 is working in jobs for which they are over-qualified, according to The New York Times. Many recent college graduates can only find jobs at restaurants, bars or gas stations. But don’t think that means going to college isn’t worth it, because college graduates are displacing those with less years of schooling. So what is increasingly happening is that college graduates get the menial jobs, and people who didn’t go to college get no jobs at all.
At the same time, college is more expensive than ever, and getting more expensive every year. The annual cost of attending a four-year college has grown three times faster than inflation since the 1970s, according to The New Yorker. The total college debt in America amounts to six hundred billion dollars, according to The New Yorker. An average student from the class of 2010 graduated with $25,250 in debt, according to NPR.
And this horrible state of affairs is relatively new. In 1970, it was possible to work 14 hours a week at a minimum wage job and earn enough money to pay for all college expenses, thus graduating with no debt, according to The Simple Dollar. Today, some people won’t finish paying off their student loans until their forties.
So the reality is that college students are saddled with enormous debt, often have to work while in school to pay tuition and fees, and might still face unemployment or a life of waiting tables after they graduate. The days when college students could be called privileged or carefree are long gone. Today, they are a group of people constantly being forced to pay more for less. Every year the cost of college goes up, and the prospects after graduation look bleaker. Public universities like the University of Massachusetts keep getting cuts in their state funding, because state politicians refuse to raise taxes on the super-rich (bailing them out is ok, though).
Many students refuse to get involved in politics because they believe what they are being told about belonging to the privileged few. But nothing could be further from the truth. Students have been under attack for several decades, and especially over the last few years, so a strong fight back is long overdue. The students in California who were the hardest hit, have already been fighting back for a couple of years. Now, Occupy Education and other movements have put out a call for a national day of action to defend education on March 1.
The Occupy group at UMass has answered that call and is planning a rally and speakout at 12 p.m. on March 1 on the steps of the Student Union, to be followed by a protest march. This action is directed against budget cuts, fee hikes, cuts in health care services, slashing of student jobs, ever-increasing student debt, police brutality and the myriad other ways in which our university is being privatized and students are being asked to pay for the crisis caused by the one percent.
I hope it will be the beginning of a long campaign to make the voices of students and faculty heard, to make it clear to the administration that we are among the 99 percent and we have had enough of paying more for less.
Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.