The total United States government debt is more than $16 trillion. That’s a huge sum, but why should college students care? After all, they have their own student debt to worry about.
America’s fiscal future has a profound impact on college students, from student-loan interest rates to career prospects after college. Up to Us, a competition sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U), and Net Impact with the goal of encouraging college students to educate their peers and take action on U.S. government debt, is challenging students to face what might be the biggest obstacle to their success after graduation.
“As the debt keeps growing, paying interest crowds out investment in other areas,” said Sharon Chen, president of the Up to Us initiative at New York University. “Plus, S&P downgraded the U.S. debt rating. That affects rates for housing, rates for loans and even rates for student loans.”
The NYU chapter of Up to Us, which consists of about 25 students, competes against nine chapters at other colleges. The winning chapter will receive $10,000 and be honored by President Clinton at the sixth annual 2013 Clinton Global Initiative University meeting in April at Washington University in St. Louis.
The different college teams have taken various approaches to educating their peers. The NYU organization has had a table at general club exhibitions throughout the semester, as well as several of its own events. At each of these events, the organization sets out three water jugs, representing the federal departments of education, military defense and emergency relief, areas that face increasing budget cuts due to the federal debt.
“We give students a token and ask them to pick one of the jars,” said Chen. “If we win the Up to Us competition, we will donate $10,000 to the department that has the most tokens.”
Agree Ahmed, the Up to Us team leader at Georgetown University, said he thinks the federal debt is his generation’s most pressing policy issue.
“As the debt grows, no one will stand to lose more than my generation as the social safety net gets cut down and the programs we care about lose funding,” said Ahmed. “It’s important for youth to make their voices heard on the issue because our demographic is currently so silent on the topic.”
Georgetown’s Up to Us group has pursued some creative ways to get students engaged, from a federal debt party and poetry slam to a flash mob. They are also delivering oatmeal-raisin cookies to U.S. representatives, each with an attached letter describing the importance of federal debt to college students.
For Samuel Gilman, the Up to Us leader at Brown University, engaging college students in a discussion about the federal debt is more important than toeing political party lines.
“Andrew Kaplan, a Democrat from New York; Heath Mayo, a Republican from Texas; and I, an independent from Washington, D.C., sat down around a small round table to talk about the challenges that threaten the sustainability of our generation’s economic future,” said Gilman.
“Andrew, Heath and I will never agree about the fundamental role of government, but like so many Millennials, we favor problem solving over political values. We decided to launch a student organization called Common Sense Action to elevate Millennial problem solving to the policy-making table.”
In fact, the Up to Us competition is designed to be non-partisan.
“We’re not approaching this issue from the right or the left. We’re not subscribing a specific solution to the problem. We’re just raising awareness among college students about the federal debt,” said Chen.
As Brown University President Christina Paxson said at the student-organized Rhode Island Fiscal Summit, “This group is doing what our members of Congress can’t do, which is bringing Democrats, Republicans, Independents together.”
For Conrad Zbikowski, director of Up to Us at the University of Minnesota, the responsibility for taking control of the debt lies with his peers.
“Our generation will one day take the reigns, and it is important that we engage in the national debate today just as our parents and grandparents did when they faced national crises,” he said.
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