Occupy Wall Street: What Political Changes Should Students Fight For?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about Occupy Wall Street. The movement has spread across the country—chances are, there’s an Occupy movement in your nearest big city, too.
But what are they protesting? The answer varies depending on who you’re asking. Many are there to protest corporate privilege and government corruption. Others are there to protest the war, advocate for protecting Social Security and Medicare, or eliminate the federal reserve. The demands are many—and some see the diversity as a strength, not a weakness, making Occupy Wall Street a platform for many different views. The movement is diverse, drawing participants from a wide range of ages and backgrounds.
Students and recent grads, however, make up a significant percentage of the protest movement. And they have plenty of reason to protest. Those aged 20-24 holding bachelor’s degrees saw unemployment rates rise 17% between January 2010 and January 2011. Only 56% of the graduating class of 2010 had held a job by spring of 2011—compared with 90% of graduates from 2006 and 2007. And starting salaries have declined 10% between 2006 and 2010, according to a study completed by Rutgers University’s John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development.
And those who do get jobs are often not much better off than the unemployed. According to a New York Times assessment of data from the US Department of Labor, the number of college grads between the ages of 25 and 34 employed in bar, restaurant, and other food-service jobs has risen 17% between 2008 and 2009. College grads working retail, in gas stations and for taxi and limousine services has also risen—meaning many college grads are underemployed, landing jobs with fairly low wages, no benefits, and no college degree requirement.
Clearly America is breaking its promise to young people with college degrees. Here are a few suggestions for demands that might really help recent graduates and current students in the US
Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard about Occupy Wall Street. The movement has spread across the country-chances are, there's an Occupy movement in your nearest big city, too.
Substantial assistance in student loans
On top of unemployment woes, recent graduates are struggling these days under a mountain of debt. The average student loan debt for 2011 graduates is projected to be $22,900—and some have debt of $100,000 or more after attending a more exclusive four-year program or graduate school.
In the earlier years of his tenure, President Obama introduced several measures designed to lighten the load for graduates struggling with debt—including the Income-Based Repayment Program, which allows students who fall below certain income levels to reduce the amount they pay monthly to their student loans—or even cease payment entirely.
That’s a good start. But this program is available only for consolidated federal loans—and for many students, the real problem is the private loans.
What if the government expanded the IBR program to make more people eligible—and required private banks to offer a similar program to recent grads struggling with private debt? And while they’re at it, why not expand loan forgiveness programs—in danger in many states—and make them more widely available?
An expanded government grant program
President Obama expanded the Pell Grant program when he took office—but after the 2011 debt deal, those Pell Grant increases are threatened in coming decades. Students should make their voices heard in this issue—and tell the government in no uncertain terms that they want Pell Grant funding to be a priority.
At this point, students can receive up to $5,550 per year in Pell Grant aid. But only the neediest students receive the full amount of aid—and this amount is a drop in the bucket compared to tuition at some schools. Most students, even those with severe financial need, must go into debt to go to college. And student loan debt is a heavy burden for students from middle-class backgrounds, too—it’s not just the neediest students who need grants, not loans, to make college affordable.
What if college students demanded that the government offer twice as much in Pell Grants per year—and expanded the program to include a much greater number of students?
Stronger health insurance reform. President Obama did do a few key things to help recent graduates as well as college students with his health insurance reforms. After 2014, college health insurance policies have to meet minimum standards for coverage—no more bare-bones policies. More employers will face fines if they don’t offer health insurance. And students will be able to stay on their parents’ plans up until the age of 26—no more scrambling for coverage after you graduate.
But there’s a negative side to the health insurance overhaul as well. You still have to buy expensive health insurance if you can’t get it through your parents or your job. Yes, there are government subsidies—but single people with no children in particular can still be responsible for a hefty chunk of health insurance premiums, according to the Health Reform Subsidy Calculator. There are also government penalties if you don’t buy health insurance. And millions of people need coverage now—but they must wait until 2014 for the biggest benefits to kick in.
But perhaps the worst part of the current health insurance reform is that it does little to rein in costs for health care. Some have predicted that the cost of health insurance is likely to go up by 2014, not down. And there’s no nonprofit government option to provide low-cost competition and incentive for private insurers to lower their premiums.
What if, instead of a mandate on the uninsured to buy pricey health insurance plans, the government issued a stronger mandate for health insurance companies to lower costs? And while they’re at it, how about an affordable government option available to everybody—not just members of Congress—that will give private insurers further incentive to lower their prices? And what if we made this option available before 2014, so people who urgently need care—including recent grads with health conditions—can get the help they need now, without risking financial ruin?
Tuition goes up every year. According to the College Board, tuition in 2010-2011 rose 4.5% at private colleges and 7.9% in public universities. Compare that to an inflation rate of approximately 3.8% in 2011, and wage growth of 1.8% as of May 2011.
Most college students make up the difference by taking out more loans—often expensive private loans with high variable insurance rates. With falling recent graduate employment rates and reduced salaries for those who do get jobs, rising tuition is making life significantly worse for most recent grads.
What if the government instituted limits to the amounts colleges could increase tuition every year? What if the number had to follow national inflation rates—or wage growth averages? That way, tuition increases would be more closely tied to real economic conditions—and families’ abilities to pay.
Job incentives targeted to recent graduates
Recent grads are having a hard time getting jobs—there’s no question. What if the government issued incentives to companies to hire recent grads?
All these reform ideas might sound expensive. But the US is one of the richest countries in the world. Other countries with lower GDP’s manage to offer their citizens national health care programs and low college tuition. Reducing tax breaks on the rich and closing corporate loopholes could go a long way toward funding programs and incentives that would provide substantial help to people who need it. And if Occupy Wall Street comes through with a solid list of demands like these, it’s possible the movement could bring about real change for students and recent grads.
What We Saw at the Occupy Wall Street Protest - YouTube.com
New York Times: Outlook is Bleak Even for Recent College Graduates
MSN: 8 Ways to Pay Down Student Loans
US Inflation Calculator
Economic Policy Institute: Wage Growth Slows to a Crawl
MSN: College Costs Rise, Tuition Hikes Hit Public Schools Hardest
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