Millions of college graduates will soon walk across the stage to accept their diplomas. Given the harsh reality of today’s economy, here’s the commencement speech I’d like to deliver to the class of 2012:
Congratulations on your degrees. And sorry about all those student loans.
Nearly half of you will soon find jobs that will launch you on your careers. The rest will probably spend the coming years as baristas, sommeliers, maitre d’s, and famed mixologists. Your offices will be Starbucks, three-star restaurants, or the high-end cocktail bar down the street.
Or perhaps you could be like Winona Ryder’s character in the iconic Generation X movie Reality Bites. It was filmed around the time you were born, but recessions come and go. After her job at The Gap didn’t pan out, her mom suggested she try fast food.
“Why don’t you get a job at the Burgerrama?” asked her mother, played by Swoosie Kurtz. “They’ll hire you!”
It’s not fair. But the world just isn’t ready for you. It either doesn’t have enough jobs or it doesn’t have the right kind of jobs. So what are you to do?
I think you have to change the world. You must help build an economy that works for all of us to save yourselves from Starbucks.
A successful economy doesn’t look like the one we’ve got today. It’s an economy where all Americans have good job and can educate their kids, support their families, and retire with security. It’s an economy where college is affordable.
Successful economies aren’t built by accident. They require strong public policies and public investments that are accompanied by corporate responsibility. Unfortunately, the road to rebuilding our economy and our shattered middle class is blocked.
The biggest roadblock today was erected by the CEOs of corporations that are too big to fail. Greedy Wall Street speculators and the lobbyists and elected officials who do their bidding are also out there throwing wrenches in the works.
You really can change the world. You belong to the largest and most diverse generation our nation has ever seen. You have the power to take back our democracy and set the terms of the national debate. Although you face profound challenges in today’s economy, I wouldn’t want to bet against you.
Of course, you can’t change the world overnight. One good place to start would be to change something already hitting your wallet hard — those staggering student loans. Student debt has now, for the first time, surpassed $1 trillion in our country. Two out of three of you owe student debt. Or your parents do. A total of 37 million Americans are struggling under the weight of these loans that won’t be easy to pay back if half of you can’t get decent jobs. On average, you each owe at least $25,000.
Some members of Congress would now like make to make it even harder for students to afford higher education. The House of Representative has approved a budget that would eliminate Pell Grants for more than 1 million college students. That would cause students to borrow more, not less. And unless Congress acts by July 1, nearly 8 million college students will see the interest rates on their Stafford loans double, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. That would cost the average college student $1,000 for each year Congress doesn’t act.
College should cost Americans less, not more. Just making our nation’s student debt burden more manageable won’t be enough to build the type of economy that works for all of us.
But we have to start somewhere. It’s time to rein in runaway student debt. You’ll have to lead the way.