Around this time of year, thousands of soon-to-be high school and college graduates are contemplating the next steps in their lives. This is supposed to be a time of excitement and hope as young people close one chapter and enter another. For many past generations, this was a time of possibilities, when high school students would think of going to college or finding full-time employment, and college students would think of finding a career and raising a family. However, thanks to Bush and the ultra-right, what was a time of excitement has been turned into one of hardship and anxiety.
High schools across the country are being crippled in funds and resources because of Bush’s disastrous No Child Left Behind Act. By linking funding to test scores and refusing to fully fund NCLB, Bush has guaranteed that students in resource-poor urban and rural school districts will fail. They are unable to finish high school because they can’t pass the required tests due to overcrowded classes, lack of textbooks and materials and lack of qualified teachers.
Today’s high school graduates have few options that offer them a stable future. For those who don’t want to or are unable to attend college, employment opportunities are limited. The ultra-right’s attack on labor in the past 20 years, coupled with corporations using technology to downsize as well as closing down factories and moving work overseas, has left many of us stuck working our adult lives in low-wage service jobs without union protection, jobs that don’t offer health care or retirement benefits or even a livable income.
Chronic unemployment is a major issue for young people, especially youth of color. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one-third of African American youth aged 16 to 19 and one in seven Latino youth are unemployed. In cities like New York, the unemployment rate for African American males reaches up to 50 percent.
The prospects for attending college aren’t much better. Massive tuition hikes in recent years plus Bush’s cuts in funding for Pell Grants, low-interest student loans and higher education itself have put the price tag of a college education out of reach for many working-class youth. It is estimated that 200,000 high school students were unable to attend college this year because they could not afford the tuition.
This will be the fifth year that Bush has frozen the amount of money awarded to low-income students through Pell Grants. Over 5 million students depend on the Pell Grant to help pay for college. However, the current maximum award is about $4,000, far below even the lowest college tuition, not to mention books and living costs. Bush is also proposing to eliminate the Perkins loan, a federally subsidized low-interest loan program for low-income students. Perkins loans are a key part of financial aid packages for many students who otherwise would not be able to attend college.
In addition, Bush has continued his attack on affirmative action and initiatives that promote equal access to higher education by zero-funding programs like GEAR UP, Upward Bound, LEAP and the Thurgood Marshall Fellowship Program, which help youth of color get into and finish college.
Because of the cuts in federal grant aid, students have had to take out more and more loans. Today’s college graduates are faced with crushing student debt. Almost 39 percent are considered to have “unmanageable debt” — defined as student loan payments that are more than 8 percent of their yearly income. This debt makes it hard to rent apartments or get other loans to buy a car or a home, and it is a massive financial burden.
Bush’s war in Iraq is stealing hundreds of billions of dollars from funds for public education at all levels, and from programs that help working-class youth get a college education. In the upcoming elections, youth and students have a chance to stop the attacks on education. We have the chance to remove from office those who steal money from education to pay for an illegal and unjust war.
Remember that the federal budget bill passed by the House in January only cleared by two votes. This bill took billions of dollars away from higher education to pay for the war in Iraq. By changing the face of Congress, we not only have the chance to defeat these cuts but also can begin to win legislation that fully funds our schools from nursery to university. Youth and students must send a loud and clear message to Congress in the fall: No to war, no to cuts in education; we demand books not bombs.
Adam Tenney (email@example.com) is education coordinator for the Young Communist League USA.