I suspect you've heard about the stunning margin of the youth vote--how 18-29 year-olds supported Democratic congressional candidates over Republicans by a massive 60% to 38% difference. They did so in every region of the country, from a 74-25% split in the East to a 51-48% margin in the South. They provided the winning margin for Tester in Montana and Webb in Virginia, and helped put McCaskill over the top in Missouri. Had it been up to them, the Democrats would have also won Senate races in Tennessee, Arizona, and Nevada; Ned Lamont would have defeated Joe Lieberman, and a slew of additional House seats would have changed hands. The Democrats would have elected Senators from 26 states, with Republicans carrying Texas, Utah, Wyoming, and the Maine seat of moderate Olympia Snow. Studies suggest that young voters tend to keep the political identifications they develop in their first few elections (for instance, the young adults who helped cascade Reagan into office have tended to remain more conservative as they've gotten older than those in the late Vietnam-era generation). So if Democrats address the legitimate needs of this generation, they have a chance to make it a key part of a continuing majority.
Young voters have been leaning Democratic since the Clinton years, although Nader siphoned off enough support in 2000 to make it a near-dead heat. Led by young African American and Latino voters, they were the only generation to favor Kerry, and did so by a ten percent margin. Now the gap has opened wider than ever, fueled by the Iraq war (and friends returning emotionally or physically wounded), by the religious right's attacks on sexuality, and by an economy whose terrain has become increasingly difficult for all but the wealthiest. Combining the children of late Baby Boomers and of immigrants, this generation will eventually become the largest in the country. Some of their issues, such as Iraq, global warming, and the decline of low-end and middle-income wages, cut across generational lines. But this generation also faces specific obstacles, like the financial barriers that make higher education increasingly unaffordable for any but the children of the wealthy. Age 24 is the point after which the likelihood of ever graduating from college plummets. If your family is in the top quarter in annual income, you have an 82% chance of getting a bachelor's degree by then. If you're in the bottom half of the population, your chances are just 12%--and only 10% if you're in the bottom quarter
Nancy Pelosi has already vowed to make student financial aid a priority. But the Democrats need to take this fight to the campuses, where most students are distracted from the votes and issues that profoundly affect their lives--and often wonder whether political efforts even matter. By age 29, 57% of all Americans will have completed some college, with others returning later. So we're talking about a major slice of the populace, and this country's major route to decent job prospects. Access to education won't solve our every ill, but in this area, as in so many others, Democrats need to link seemingly individual challenges with public solutions.
The barriers students face have been building since low-income wages began to stagnate in the mid-seventies, and since Reagan began shifting federal financial aid from grants (which don't get paid back) to the loans that now saddle the average college graduate with nearly $20,000 of debt. More affluent students benefited from some of the new programs, but for those who were low-income things got steadily harder. Even the Clinton programs did nothing for those at the bottom, since his prime successful initiatives, the Hope and Lifetime Learning credits, were based on income tax refunds and consequently provided no help to poor families who paid out for Social Security but were under the income tax threshold.
The encounter that crystallized the shift happened a few years ago, when I met a student who lived on the same Brooklyn block where I had lived while attending college in the early seventies. I'd worked my way through school as a bartender, making $5 an hour for twenty hours a week. I paid my tuition at a private university with costs as high as any in the nation, paid my food, rent, and books, and had money left over to go out on the weekends. Twenty-five years later, this student was working 30 hours a week for $6 an hour, a fraction in real dollars of what I'd been making. He commuted an hour and a half each way to the City College of New York, a public school with tuition far higher proportionate to his earnings than my private college tuition was to me. He kept dropping out and working fulltime to try to avoid getting too deep in debt, but would still owe $15,000 or more when and if he graduated. Though he was working harder than I had, the rules had changed to make his passage vastly more difficult.
The situation of those working their way through school has continued to get harder. College costs have skyrocketed. Low-income wages have stagnated. So have federal financial aid programs aimed at low-income students. In 1980, the maximum Pell Grant covered 77% of the average cost of attending a public institution. It now covers just 33%. In December 2005, the Bush administration made the situation far worse by cutting $12.7 billion in Federal financial aid. They reduced Pell Grants, cut successful low-income support projects like some of the Trio programs, and enacted major cuts in student loan subsidies, which will leave students paying far higher interest rates for years.
The result is a perfect storm of financial constraints that threatens the already problematic access of low-income students to higher education. Most have little sense of the policies that will leave them so financially burdened that many will either drop out before they finish, or never start to begin with, and others may postpone raising families, buying houses or entering the careers to which their passions draw them. I speak at colleges throughout the country, and in the past year have asked the students I've met whether they knew about the Bush administration's recent draconian aid cuts. A few knew, maybe one in five. The rest had no sense the cuts had even occurred, in part because their greatest impact was buried in the fine print of student loan agreements.
As a result, their voices were silent when the cuts went through. The major higher education associations did lobby against them, but few college presidents did anything to mobilize their students. The United States Student Association (USSA), the excellent association of student governments, did create some strong phone call and letter writing campaigns, which helped create enough resistance so that the bill passed the U.S. Senate by just a single vote. But given the significance of the cuts, the campus outcry was minimal.
The same has been true with other ways this administration has made it harder to get through college. A general sense that the Republicans were making things harder did contribute to the generation's electoral shifts, along with organizing by groups like the PIRGs, Rock the Vote, the League of Young Voters, and Music for America. But most students never heard about the changes in welfare rules requiring recipients, often single mothers, to work far more hours at outside jobs, even if going to school full time. Unless they were directly affected, they heard little or nothing about Bush's ban on federal financial aid to students with drug convictions-which has had no impact on affluent partiers (such as the president himself when he was "young and reckless," or the royal Bush daughters) but has prevented over 200,000 prospective students from getting federal assistance. Most heard little about Bush's bankruptcy bill--lobbied through by immensely profitable credit card companies that will gleefully offer a credit card to your dog, cat, or 12-year-old-and how it ensures that no matter how bad their financial situation, student debts will follow them for the rest of their lives.
Taken together, these changes close opportunities for all but the privileged. But they don't have to stand. Speaker-elect Pelosi is already proposing to halve the interest rates on various federal loans, increase the maximum Pell grant from $4,050 to $5,100, and increase the tax deductibility of tuition. USSA has been supporting these same measures while lobbying for the new Congress also to rescind the ban on financial aid to those with drug convictions and to support adequate child care for single parents working their way through school. Congress could go further still by enacting Pell Grant increases that actually matched the increases in college costs since the program was founded. They could pass a bill, like one Ted Kennedy proposed this past summer, that would address the problem of financially pressed students bypassing public service careers, like teaching, social work, or serving as firefighters or police officers, by capping loan repayments at 15 as a percentage of income and allowing loan debt forgiveness for public sector employees who make 10 years of repayments. Democrats could even look to the G.I. Bill as a model, and how, by making possible the college education of an entire generation (at least for the men), it both opened up unprecedented opportunity and fueled America's post-war economic boom.
Opponents are already saying that even the most minimal shifts are too costly, or politically impossible. Yet we might remember that the Bush administration passed over $100 billion a year in top bracket tax cuts, all of which could be rescinded. The Iraq was has already cost nearly $350 billion, or enough to give almost 17,000,000 complete four-year scholarships at public universities. My local paper just ran an article on how a million dollars no longer buys a luxury home. The money exists in our culture, if we're willing to debate our priorities.
Passing new laws to broaden access to higher education won't be easy. But the Democrats could consider it an opportunity. Whether or not they can pass the necessary bills over Bush's potential veto, they now have a chance to reach out and organize, particularly on campuses whose students are used to politicians ignoring them. If they can do enough to highlight the crisis in access to education, they can give grassroots campus groups a major boost in getting their peers involved. They can help engage students in drawing the links between how they or their classmates struggle to pay for their schooling and the larger priorities of our country. Precisely because their opponents will claim that resources are simply too scarce, they'll have a chance to link this with other urgent questions about what kind of common investments will build the strongest society. They have to be careful, of course, to keep the focus on the fundamental stories about what it means to be poor and trying to get through school in America-progressives in general are all too comfortable with putting to people to sleep with an endless maze of statistics and sub-clauses. But if they can really fight to reopen higher education opportunity for all, they'll win whether or not they can initially pass every desired piece of legislation. And a generation already inclined to support them just might give them their long-term allegiance.
Paul Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear (Basic Books), named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and American Book Association. See www.theimpossible.org