The amount of college graduates under 25 who were jobless or underemployed was 53 percent last year. The cost of tuition at UC campuses has tripled in the last decade, causing over half of all UC students to graduate with an average of $19,000 in debt.
Understanding statistics like these and proposing solutions was the focus of “The Economy and Today’s Generation of Young Adults,” a forum put on last Tuesday by the Santa Cruz County Democratic Party and the Democratic Women’s Club of Santa Cruz County. The latest in a series of “Democratic Dialogues” sponsored by the two organizations, Tuesday’s speakers included: Congressman Sam Farr, California State Assembly member Bill Monning, former Santa Cruz Mayor and UCSC Field Studies coordinator Mike Rotkin and UCSC fourth-years Jacqueline Seydel and David Ortiz.
Former Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Mathews moderated the discussion, which centered on the economy, higher education, student loans and strategies for political organization.
“We are in a time of unprecedented economic challenges, particularly for young adults who are coming into the workforce,” Mathews said.
Seydel and Ortiz spoke about their experiences of seeing classes cut and tuition raised while their job prospects remained dim. Seydel, a psychology and feminist studies double-major, owes $26,000 in student loans. Ortiz, a transfer student who dropped out of high school and worked odd jobs before deciding to go back to school several years ago, owes $58,000.
In 2012, nearly six million individuals were behind on their student loan payments by 12 months or more, representing one-sixth of all loan recipients.
“The financial endeavors of my generation [cast doubt on] this idea that the economy and capitalism are going to be able to pick back up and fix themselves,” Seydel said. “The students who are supposed to be doing that aren’t going to be financially able to.”
Rotkin, Monning and Farr, who all attended college in the ‘60s, drew sharp distinctions between their college experiences and the challenges confronting students today.
Farr said he remembered being able to make enough money in one summer of working odd jobs to pay for a year of tuition when he went to college.
“So obviously the times have changed,” Farr said.
At the state level, Monning, who sits on the budget committee, said these changes are largely a result of the effects of the 2008 financial crisis and Proposition 13 on state revenues.
Since 2008 California’s budget has shrunk to $86.9 billion from $120 billion. Prop 13, a ballot initiative that was passed in 1978, requires all spending decisions in the California Senate to be approved by a two-thirds supermajority, which made it nearly impossible for legislators to come to an agreement on bills involving spending or revenue increases.
“We’ve got a budget system in California where the minority party exercises absolute veto power on any revenue increases,” Monning said.
Rotkin and Monning also said that the drop in California’s corporate tax rates presents another problem. In addition to the fall in nominal rates, which Monning said have gone from 68 percent at their peak to 8 percent currently, the increasing prevalence of loopholes and exemptions often means that the state gets even less than expected.
“In the month of May, Apple generated $1 billion in net profit, they are now in the number one corporate position in the world,” Monning said. “They moved that one billion into Reno so that they could avoid paying taxes in the state of California. To me, that’s criminal activity that hurts California way more than somebody who’s addicted to drugs on the streets of Salinas.”
At the federal level, congressman Farr cited the lack of a coherent national education policy and political gridlock as the two main challenges facing higher education reform in the U.S.
“The first line of national security is a well-educated electorate and yet it’s a state responsibility to provide for that,” Farr said.
He proposed expanding programs such as the Peace Corps and Teach for America, which offer students opportunities for deferral or cancellation of student loans in exchange for volunteer work.
Farr and Monning also noted that the outcome of Prop 30 will dramatically affect the state of higher education in California. If passed, Prop 30 would raise income and sales taxes in California, which would go to K-12 and community colleges. If it doesn’t pass, the CSU and UC systems would be faced with an immediate $375 million in cuts.
“Your future’s on the ballot in just a few weeks,” Farr said. “There’s a proposition on there that’s a make or break.”
Rotkin said he has noticed a significant change in how students have come to view the political process in recent years, however.
“They’re certainly no less intelligent or knowledgeable about what’s going on in the world than when I went to college, but they have a cynicism that I didn’t have,” Rotkin said. “That’s a barrier that’s very difficult to break through.”
Will Mosher, who graduated from UCSC in 2007 with a degree in literature, said the years after college have left him with little hope for the future. Unable to find a job after graduation, he moved to South Korea for two years to teach English in order to pay off his loans.
“I think that my experience has altered me permanently,” Mosher said. “When I graduated I had a girlfriend and I was going to get married, but then I had to leave the country and it didn’t pan out. I’m probably never going to own my own home. I’m probably never going to get married. All of my choices are bad.”
Monning ended the forum with an appeal to younger voters to get organized and become engaged in the political process.
“We need to revive a conversation in this state of articulating a vision of the state we want to live in,” Monning said. “Let’s reclaim the ability to dream and articulate and then we can negotiate an appropriate way to fund it.”