Lindsay McCluskey thinks President Obama was right when he told the nation in his second State of the Union address that America's response to the current economic and jobless crisis "is our generation's Sputnik moment."
McCluskey is president of the United States Student Association, the country's oldest and largest student-led organization, which represents over 4.5 million students at over 400 campuses nationwide.
She says America faces a moment of immense potential, one that can result in a new economy built upon a quality education system that ensures community growth and personal prosperity.
During his speech Obama addressed key barriers preventing this new dawn of progress, lamenting, "America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree." The president reiterated his commitment to push the U.S. to lead the world in college graduation rates by 2020, adding, "to compete, higher education must be in reach of every American."
McCluskey says achieving Obama's goal will require courage from both parties to invest in education instead of making politically expedient spending cuts.
For example, McCluskey notes Congress and Obama must oppose a recent budget based on House Resolution 38, which would authorize the Budget Committee Chair to fund discretionary non-military spending at 2008 levels. This fiscal policy would devastate critical financial aid programs for low-income students, such as the Pell Grant.
Meeting Obama's goal will require investing in new and innovative technology, said McCluskey. "And that's going to require our workforce and future ones to become college educated."
However, concrete plans to lead us there are missing, said McCluskey.
Students and recent college graduates are facing, on average, $25 thousand dollars in debt each year, and some are facing six-figure amounts, said McCluskey. The student loan industry has created a crisis for young people as bad as the housing bubble for homeowners, she notes.
Too many students are unable to pay back their loans and many are defaulting, said McCluskey. Some pay between $300-$400 dollars monthly. Young people are facing life-changing experiences everyday and cannot afford to buy a house, a car or raise a family, she said.
"This is a huge issue," notes McCluskey. "This spring we're going to see sharp hikes in tuition and college fees for college students and many will end up paying $2,000 more."
"The fact is young people are paying more money for college and receiving less benefits in return," said McCluskey. At the same time, many campuses are experiencing major cuts and a lack of services like having an open library, she added.
Meanwhile McCluskey said she was thrilled when Obama spoke about the DREAM Act, saying, "let's stop expelling talented, responsible young people...who could be further enriching this nation."
Approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high schools each year nationwide without a pathway to afford a college education.
"These are young people with huge barriers that face out-of-state or international tuition rates with no federal aid," she said. "Immigrant communities are a growing population in the U.S. and these are people that we need to invest in. We believe education is a right and too many young people are being barred from it. It's morally wrong. We wholeheartedly support passing the DREAM Act, which would grant hundreds of thousands of young people the right to attend college," said McCluskey.
The education fight is facing a national crisis and access to public education is currently under attack, said McCluskey.
The federal government needs to create a new program that invests funds on all levels to help alleviate rising tuition rates nationwide, she continued. "They need to also make funding for the Pell Grant mandatory, so that it doesn't come up on the chopping block year after year."
"It's up to us to call on our lawmakers to create better conditions. Collectively we can help develop an education system that will give us a lot more than what we currently have now," said McCluskey.
Photo: Courtesy of USSA.