Grads facing bigger bills, emptier wallets

By all accounts, student activism is alive and well. With an unpopular war, a controversial administration and a constant debate over civil liberties, one might even say that today’s college-age protestors are spoiled for choice.

However, for Village Voice writer Anya Kamenetz, there has been one major exclusion from students’ list of grievances: their own bank statements.

“One of the first stories I worked on was about how students always march for global warming and for world peace, while not paying attention to their own bank accounts,” said Kamenetz, who has authored a series of articles on the new economics of being young. “I think there’s a lot of room for activism on that level.”

The story intrigued Kamenetz’s editors at the Voice, who recommended that she turn the idea into a book. The result is Generation Debt: Why Now Is A Terrible Time To Be Young, a 288-page distress call on the state of young people’s economic futures.

Much of the book focuses on the various financial difficulties college graduates face, not the least of which is finding a ways to pay their schools’ rapidly rising tuition rates.

A report by the Department of Education in 2005 showed that the total cost of attending a public four-year college or university has risen by 22% over the last three years, bringing the nationwide average cost to around $16,000 a year.

According to Kamenetz, such increases aren’t helped by the government’s recent cutting of federal student loan programs. Recalling the Higher Education Act of 1955, the author said the affordability of higher education has gradually taken a backseat in the arena of American political debate.

“We’ve made very little progress since then,” she said. “It seemed like a commitment was made, but then people gradually turned their back since there were more important things going on, and higher education wasn’t one of them.”

Also taking its toll on student’s bank accounts is an increasingly consumer-based culture at many colleges in which spending – not saving – is the norm. Credit card companies are still a large presence on campuses, while many universities have forged corporate partnerships.

“Every store and every brand that’s on your campus isn’t there by accident,” Kamenetz said. “The university is basically providing these corporations with their audience.”

According to reports, their audience is responding. As early as 2000, 78% of college students had credit cards, according to the student financial advising firm Nellie Mae, and the number is on the rise.

Unfortunately for new graduates, the jobs they get right out of school may not be enough to fund the kind of lifestyles many students expect. According to Kamenetz, long term commitments to jobs are history, benefits are being reduced and starting pay isn’t even coming to close to what is needed for students to pay off their mounting debts and loans.

So what is it going to take to solve this economic crisis? According to Kamenetz, it all starts with the students themselves. If change is going to take place, students need to be smarter about how they approach their college selection.

“It no longer works to just be thinking ‘I’ll just go to the best college I can get into and forget the cost.'” she said. “As they start to comparison shop and think about what they’re getting, I think you’re going to see a smarter higher education consumer. After that, tuition will go down because more expensive colleges will have to justify what they charge.”

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