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Friday, November 25, 2011

Do College Students Have Justification for Joining the 'Occupy' Movement?

I've seen a lot of comments about the 'spoiled trust fund kids' who 'expect to be handed everything on a silver platter' and 'don't want to work for the things they have.'  And other such statements.  These are usually posted by people who proudly brag about the fact that they worked their way through college and now have a good job and a nice house that they earned through their own hard work with no handouts from anyone.

Good for you.

Times have changed.

I too worked my way through college.  I vividly remember the days of working 60 to 70 hours per week between two jobs (one full-time dead-end job and one nights-and-weekends retail job), supporting myself in a should-have-been-condemned apartment in a pretty scary neighborhood, taking one night course at a time because it's all I could afford and all I had time for.  I was destroying my health by eating nothing but Ramen noodles and instant oatmeal, because it's all I could afford.  I handwashed my laundry in the bathtub because I couldn't afford to go to the laundrymat.  I even counted the squares of toilet paper I used, in an effort to reduce how often I had to buy more.  Eventually things got better when I was hired at a job with a future, one that would help me achieve that future by paying for the rest of my bachelor's degree.  Of course, I was hired with an education waiver, so they could fire me if I didn't actively pursue my degree, and they emphasized that 'slow and steady' would not win the race.  I had to finish that degree as soon as possible.  So yes it was paid for, but I finished it by working full-time during the day and going to school full-time at night.  It took me eight years of working my ass off to finally get my four-year bachelor's degree.

I know that luck was just as big a part of it as my own hard work was.  And college students today aren't as lucky.

I've been appalled by some of the reactions to the pepper-spray incident at UC Davis last week.  In many cases, the protesters were characterized as I listed in my introductory paragraph, and also lumped in with all the Occupy protesters everywhere, particularly those few bad apples who are causing trouble in some of the larger gatherings.  (Apparently since there are a small handful of true trouble-makers giving the protesters a bad name in New York, the police were justified in pepper-spraying a group of students peacefully sitting on a pedestrian-only walkway on a college campus in California.  Or so the argument goes.)  The UC Davis crowd were trying to be clear that while they shared much in common with the other Occupy movements, some of their grievances were particular to them, specifically the issue of more tuition increases.

To those of you who proudly talk about how you worked your way through college, please consider the following numbers from the UC Davis website for an in-state undergraduate student who began her studies as a freshman in 2008.

Tuition and fees (excluding books, room, board, and other incidentals) per academic year:

2008/2009  -  $9,496.60
2009/2010 - $10,989.95
2010/2011 - $13,079.91
2011/2012 - $15,123.36

You who so proudly worked your way through school, did you have to deal with a 59% increase in tuition between your freshman and senior years?  I can tell you, no, you didn't.  UC Davis was kind enough to provide historical information on their website going back as far as 1994.  So let's assume that's when you started working your way through college.

1994/1995 - $4,099.00
1995/1996 - $4,554.00
1996/1997 - $4,262.00
1997/1998 - $4,331.50

If you started working your way through college before 1994, then your costs were even lower.

Now let's assume that you worked at California's minimum wage forty hours per week for twelve weeks during the summer, and twenty hours per week for thirty-six weeks during the school year, leaving four weeks of unpaid sick and vacation time each year (because let's face it, if you're working for minimum wage, you don't get paid time off).  You would have earned (before taxes):

1994/1995 - $5,100 ($1,001 more than your tuition)
1995/1996 - $5,700 ($1,146 more than your tuition)
1996/1997 - $6,180 ($1,918 more than your tuition)
1997/1998 - $6,900 ($2,568.50 more than your tuition)

Today's senior who's worked the same number of hours at today's minimum wage in California (which has remained steady at $8.00 per hour since 2008) has earned (before taxes) $9,600 per year.  That is:

2008/2009 - $103.40 more than her tuition
2009/2010 - $1,389.95 less than her tuition
2010/2011 - $3,479.91 less than her tuition
2011/2012 - $5,523.36 less than her tuition

So where you would have had $6,633.50 in the bank upon graduation, today's senior will be $10,289.82 in debt for doing exactly what you did.

And let's not even talk about what it cost you to buy your house in 1998 compared to today.

Starting school in 2008, that student probably figured that she could mostly work her way through school.  It would be tight, and she might have to take on a little debt, but nothing too difficult to pay off with the increase in wages she's sure to see upon graduation.  But each year her costs went up astronomically, forcing her to either take on more and more debt, or else cut her losses with nothing to show for it, and no hope of getting the higher-paying job that would enable her to pay off the debt she'd already incurred.  What exactly is she supposed to do?  What did you do when you were faced with that situation?  Oh wait, that's right.  You were never faced with that situation.

So before you start waxing eloquent about how hard you worked for the things you have, and how these lazy kids should do the same, consider that the world they live in is very different from the one you did.  Let go of your self-righteousness, and consider that they might actually have something legitimate to protest.

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