Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Graduates

I spent the day yesterday at Cal State Monterey Bay at a graduation ceremony for the daughter of a good friend. Last year at this time we were at Akili’s graduation. He grew up with the young lady who graduated yesterday and I have known her since she was a little girl. We are extra proud of the accomplishments of these young people these days when the state colleges have raised the cost of tuition, making it more difficult for students to complete a degree. Our friend who graduated yesterday thinks she was perhaps the only Native American graduate from CSUMB in the 2011 class, and since there is no Native student association, she was invited by some of her African American friends to participate in “Black Grad” (a private celebration sponsored by the Black Student Union) earlier this week. Her mom told me that so few Native students attend college, or complete a degree course once started, that the Gates Foundation is phasing out the Native American portion of the Gates Millennium Scholarship (which the younger sister received and is using to pay for her college education).

When I went to college in the 70s, students normally completed their bachelor’s degree in four years. These days, according to the N.Y. Times, it takes college students an average of six years to complete a degree. The financial stress of this prolonged period in college is enormous. And, ironically, one of the reasons why it takes so long is because it costs so much to attend. Most students have to work while studying. Here in California, there is the added problem within the state college systems that class offerings have been reduced because of budget cuts so students have great difficulty getting the classes they need to complete their degree. Akili received a waiver for a couple of his requirements and was allowed to substitute other classes instead because the classes he needed were unavailable in his final year and he needed to graduate.

According to the Pew Research Center (2009) some 37% of people age 18 to 29 are either unemployed or out of the work force, the highest rate in that age group in 40 years. And last week I read an article that stated that 85% of college graduates move back home with their parents after graduation. That’s unbelievable to me! When I was a 20-something, once you went away to school, you were gone, never moved home again. But these days, they can’t get work or can’t get work that pays enough to support them. (A lot of employers want new college grads to accept “unpaid internships,” which is in fact illegal.) Young people who completed that labor of love and obtained a college diploma now find themselves unable to land that elusive “career job.” They are bagging groceries, waiting tables, working retail, and basically filling low-skill jobs alongside high school students. It’s degrading. Our Akili delivered pizzas for several months. Yael worked as a receptionist and then went back to waiting tables (which is how she earned money while she was in college). Fortunately, Akili recently started a new job at a young company (building websites, doing graphics, and developing social marketing materials) and Yael is in a temporary job as an administrative assistant in a social marketing firm in the fashion industry (we hope it will become permanent with some luck in the fall).

Furthermore, the majority of these grads have college loans they need to be paying off, meanwhile they can’t earn enough money in a low-wage job to fully support themselves, let alone pay off that loan. I don’t think the whole college loan paradigm is viable anymore, but try telling that to the financial aid office. Young people come out of college carrying a huge debt that they can’t repay. They default on the loan, destroying their credit rating for years to come. Their financial situation is terribly stressful. They will never be able to buy a house because they have to pay off that loan first. A note of interest: President Obama still owed money on his student loans when he was elected to Congress.

Whether or not they have a college degree, more and more young people are moving back in with their folks (or never leaving). The N.Y. Times reports (2010) that, “In 1980, 11% of 25-to-34-year-olds were living in multi-generational households. By 2008, 20% were.” Furthermore, the Times states that 56% of men age 18 to 24 and 48% of women in the same age group live under the same roof as their parents. Some of these young people are married with children, mind you, and still need to live with their parents to make ends meet. They can’t find jobs and the jobs they do find don’t pay enough to live independently, often carrying no health benefits. The financial crisis has left an entire generation of hard-working young people pitching tents in the ruins of Wall Street. Or, more literally, pitching their tents in their parents’ back yard. Fortunately, the young lady who graduated yesterday has a terrific job waiting for her. She begins next month. One of the lucky ones. Yesterday was a wonderful celebration of her achievement.

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