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.
It was late at night on a spring evening in 2006 at Columbia University, and a dozen of us remained around a table; no one wanted to leave. Earlier I had spoken about how to identify what was and what was not anti-Semitism. This group of progressive Jewish students wanted to keep talking. I had expected their post-presentation conversation to be about Zionism or definitions of anti-Semitism, but what made the students want to stay for that last hour was a discussion about the college experience itself.
After talking about the expected topics, one student had said, “This is the first time I’ve felt comfortable saying what I really think about Israel.”
When I asked why that was, she said, “Because I always have to gauge, if I say what I think, whether that would impact a grade or a friendship.”
“Is this only about Israel that you find yourself repressing your views?” I asked. “No,” she said. Others agreed – this culture of double-checking one’s thoughts, they said, applied to many issues, and was experienced by non-Jewish students at Columbia, too, as well as by students they knew at other campuses.
How depressing that at an institution designed to shake up the thinking of smart young people, the message heard instead is the importance of self-censoring. Not because of harassment or intimidation, but because there was insufficient space created and cultivated for students to take intellectual risks. College should be the time when students receive encouragement to say things that others might find difficult or even offensive, as part of the learning process.
The flip side of this problem occurred Feb. 8 at the University of California at Irvine. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren spoke, or at least he tried to. He was repeatedly interrupted by anti-Israel students, heckling him.
This is part of a disturbing trend of Israeli speakers on campus being denied the ability to speak or speak without harassment (as has happened at University of California at Los Angeles, University of Pittsburgh, University of Chicago and elsewhere). The UCI campus has had a long history of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents, usually tied to its Muslim Student Union. These students were not afraid to say what they thought, but they displayed a complete unwillingness to listen. They interfered not only with Oren’s ability to share his ideas and experiences, but even more importantly, the ability of their classmates to learn.
To the university’s credit, protesters were removed and arrested. An Irvine official noted that disrupting a speaker violates the campus code of conduct, and that suspensions or expulsions might ensue. The students who disrupted the event must be disciplined. What they did directly undermines the integrity of the academic process, much as plagiarism does, and should not be tolerated.
But there is a larger issue here. As young adults become engaged with new ideas, especially ones that touch some supercharged aspect of their identity, they may lose the capacity to see complexities and grays, and self-righteously see themselves as arbiters of correct thoughts or morality.
Rather than just accept this developmental zealotry as a fact of life, university leaders should strive to educate students who can think clearly about -- as opposed to demonize and dismiss, or be fearful of engaging -- ideas with which they do not agree.
The problem is that students do not sufficiently understand the nature of the academic enterprise, and what is expected of them. To help them learn, faculty members and university leaders must mine conflicts (about anything, not just views toward the Middle East), not avoid them. It is from difficult and contentious questions, not the easy or formalistic ones, that students can learn the most.
Yes, it is true that students identify with one faction or another and may have a great desire to “win” a political contest. But universities should be much clearer about defining the importance, and uniqueness, of the academic enterprise and the culture it requires. No student should be afraid to say what he or she thinks, and no student should prohibit another from learning. It is no accident that the smartest people I know are more likely to begin a sentence with “I might be wrong, but....” It would help if students learned they might be too, and that being wrong is not the end of the world.
Academic freedom, of course, requires that people have the right to talk on campus. But for that freedom to be real, rather than a nice-sounding notion, much more than policy statements and enforcement of rules is required. Campus administrators need to have a clear goal: that every student should understand, in his or her core, that the purpose of their college education is to help them learn one thing -- to be a critical thinker.
A critical thinker appreciates ideas that challenge or contradict more than those that endorse or confirm. And a critical thinker takes risks.
Kenneth Stern is director of the American Jewish Committee's Division on Antisemitism and Extremism.