Most Vermont students have spent their entire college career in the deepest recession since the Great Depression. This December, the recession will have lasted four years.
After reckless and illegal behavior on Wall Street caused a financial collapse that sent the economy into a tailspin, jobs have become scarce and wages have fallen. The lack of good-paying jobs compounds the financial problems faced by students, who are often graduating college with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
Nick Hogan, 20, a junior at St. Michael's College said he is "absolutely" concerned about the job market he will face after graduating. "The iffy job market is driving me to consider continued education," the political science major said.
The downside of more schooling, however, is often more debt. "I am concerned about my debt load," Hogan said. "I will graduate with approximately $40,000 in debt, not considering the potential for more loans for graduate work."
Sen. Bernie Sanders believes that it is absolutely imperative for our country that college be affordable and available to all families - regardless of income. He also believes that, in the midst of this terrible recession, the federal government must embark on a major jobs program.
"The productivity and strength of our economy depends upon a well-educated work force. It is a great waste of intellectual capital when an increasing number of high school graduates are not able to afford a higher education," Sanders said. "Further, our nation suffers, as do millions of families, when students graduate college deeply in debt."
Citing sky-high unemployment, Sanders said the federal government should wage an aggressive effort to create the millions of jobs our economy desperately needs. The senator's ambitious jobs plan would help graduating seniors find good-paying jobs and help put the unemployed back to work.
Sanders called for creating huge job growth by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, transforming our energy system away from fossil fuel, investing in education, and making fundamental changes in our trade policy. Revising American trade policy will help rebuild the country's manufacturing sector by encouraging corporate America to invest in the United States instead of outsourcing jobs to China, Vietnam, and other countries that pay low wages.
Zach Despart, 20, anticipates graduating this year from the University of Vermont with about $70,000 in debt. "I am concerned about finding a job post-graduation. There are a lot of talented people entering the job market," he said. "I've been trying to build my resume by doing internships and doing an honors thesis."
"My debt from student loans is especially concerning," Despart adds, "because you're forced to immediately find a job because you have to start paying back loans six months after graduation."
A different type of debt-the national debt-has dominated the debate in Washington in recent months. "Yes, deficit reduction is important and we must reduce the debt in a fair and responsible way. But the number one challenge America faces right now is a jobs crisis," Sanders said, noting that nearly 25 million Americans, or 16 percent of the work force, cannot find full-time jobs. "Creating the new jobs that we desperately need is not only vitally important to our economy, but will be the means by which we reduce the deficit over the long term. New jobs mean more government revenue, which makes a lot more sense than spending billions on unemployment compensation, food stamps, and other programs needed during a severe recession."
Leisa Kelsey, 50, of St. Albans is not your typical student. She is also concerned about graduating from college in a terrible job market. Kelsey, a mother of two teenagers, borrowed $24,500 to go back to school to get her bachelor's degree so she could land a better paying job. "I just didn't make enough money to pay the rent," she said.
She plans to graduate from Johnson State College this spring, but is anxious about the economy. "I was thinking the recession can't last that long," Kelsey said. "Now I'm thinking: I only have until the spring-and it doesn't look like the situation will be fixed that fast."
Now, she worries she will have to return to her original job, but also deal with tens of thousands of dollars in new debt.
"I think everyone is struggling with the decisions of what to do after graduation," said Brittany Richardson, 21, who is a senior at St. Michael's College. Richardson, an anthropology and religious studies major, says she will graduate with about $50,000 in debt and is "definitely concerned with how and when I will be able to pay off my loans and how that will affect me in the future."
This spring, Rutgers University examined how college graduates have fared during the recession. You don't have to get too far beyond the title of their study, "Unfulfilled Expectations: Recent College Graduates Struggle in a Troubled Economy" to realize the report does not paint a rosy picture of the prospects for students about to graduate from college.
Among the members of the Class of 2010, just 56 percent had landed a job by this spring, the study found. That compares with 90 percent of graduates from the classes of 2006 and 2007.
For recent college students that do find a job, pay has slumped. Median starting salary for students graduating from four-year colleges in 2009 and 2010 was $27,000, the study reported. That's a 10 percent decline from the $30,000 salary received by students who entered the work force in 2006 to 2008.
On college campuses throughout Vermont, the lackluster job market and the great financial burden facing students upon graduation is widely discussed.
"The down economy-and the fear surrounding it-certainly has me anxious about finding a job when I graduate," said Jeff Ayers, a 20-year-old English major at UVM. "Luckily, as a junior, I have a little time for things to recover. I feel for the seniors heading out into this toxic economic climate. With my own debt rising from student loans, I can't imagine having to try and pay it off soon."
Ayers said he is beginning to lose confidence the president and congressional leaders can get the economy moving. "I like to have faith that those we elected to serve can come up with an effective solution to our nation's financial troubles," he said. "But that faith keeps becoming harder to hold on to."
Sen. Sanders cautions, students cannot and must not lose hope: "We need our young people and their ideas, their passion and their drive to help firmly establish America's place as a global leader and to create the good-paying jobs we need to rebuild our middle class."