Last year, college students were the most fervent supporters of Obama’s bid for the presidency. Now, the U.S. Senate has taken up what Obama says is the defining legislation of his term: health care reform. Oddly, the voice of college students is nowhere to be found in the national debate -- most likely because the activist set does not realize how much is at stake for them personally.
It might seem that college students have little to worry about. Most full-time students in fact have health insurance right now. Two-thirds are covered through their parents’ insurance plans and another 7 percent are covered through a university plan, according to the Government Accountability Office.
But one thing is guaranteed: College students with the good fortune to have insurance right now will lose their current coverage soon after graduation. For those who are insured through their parents’ plans, they will be dropped after they leave school. And for students on a university plan, they will soon learn that the loyalty of their alma mater has limits: It does not extend to a lifetime of affordable health care.
What is a student to do? The current answer, unfortunately, is to get a job. And not just any job: a stable, full-time job with an employer that will offer them health insurance. That, in fact, is the bizarre reality of health care in the United States. We currently live in a system that presumes “employer-sponsored insurance,” in which you must have a steady paycheck before you can get affordable health care.
As college students surely know, however, the prospect of steady full-time work is looking worse than ever. The unemployment rate for young adults is up from 10 percent last year to a whopping 15 percent this year. For recent grads who have the good fortune to land a job, they will be more likely than older workers to work for small companies. But small employers are also the least likely to offer health insurance, and more small companies have dropped health insurance for their workers every year since 2000.
The alternative is to buy insurance individually rather than to bother with an employer. For recent grads in particular, it’s a pity that the cost of these plans is rising faster than wages. As workers just starting their careers, college students will most likely have the lowest earnings of their lifetimes. Short of a steady job or enough money and know-how to navigate the private insurance market, the Class of 2010 will get insurance under the current system only if they are poor or disabled. Only then would they get scooped up by a government safety net program: Medicaid. But it’s not clear that any college students aspire to that fate.
This scenario does not even take into account the existential question that college seniors may be pondering right now: whether they even want to follow the straight-and-narrow path from college to traditional career. Entrepreneurs, activists, travelers, farmers, parents, artists -- be warned: All of those opportunities would require verve, intelligence -- and the willingness to sacrifice good health if need be. It is little wonder that people in their 20s are more likely to be uninsured than any other age group in the U.S. today.
Right now, the U.S. Senate is debating a bill that could help change this situation for college students. But many senators are not yet convinced that Americans really want health care reform. Do college students?
It is a good time for students to think through their answers. For one thing, Obama is calling for a vote on the Senate bill before Christmas. No doubt, health care bills are complicated and boring -- not exactly end-of-term pleasure reading. But students might start with a blog  by the director of the White House budget office, Peter Orszag.
Heading into winter break, students also have the chance to think through the health care debate on a more personal level. They can find out when their current coverage is going to end. For those on a parent’s plan, it may come as a shock to find that they will lose coverage on Commencement Day.
Over the holidays, college students can also chat up their grandparents and other older relatives. Polls consistently show that people over the age of 65 are the most resistant to health care overhaul -- in large part because they want to protect their Medicare coverage.
College students do have a major stake in the outcome of the health care debate. So whether on campuses or on their own, students would be wise to think through the issues -- not for Obama’s sake this time, but for their own.
Laura Stark is an assistant professor of sociology and science in society at Wesleyan University; she co-wrote this essay with several Wesleyan juniors and seniors: Suzanna Hirsch, Samantha Hodges, Gianna Palmer and Kim Segall.