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Tuesday, Jul 26, 2011, 10:03 am

Student Leaders Demand a Debt Deal—Without Any Demands

By Cole Stangler

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College students, recent graduates and young people across the country have an enormous stake in the outcome of the federal debt ceiling and deficit debate. Billions of dollars in student aid, along with huge chunks of our country’s social safety net, are on the bargaining table. If these cuts are enacted they will alter the landscape of the country our generation (full disclosure: I'm a college student) inherits

Given these dire circumstances, I can't help but be disappointed by the efforts of Students for a Debt Deal, a group of over 100 college student body presidents from across the nation calling for political leaders to do "what is right for the country" and reach a compromise on a budget deal. They are an advocacy group that doesn’t actually advocate for anything, a group that speaks for students without defending students’ interests.  

The group’s letter sent to President Obama on July 20 calling for a deal to be reached did not include a single concrete demand—say, for instance, a call to maintain current funding for Pell Grants or Stafford Loans—which is probably one of the reasons why Obama agreed to do a conference call with the group on Tuesday.

“As our study of history tells us, big things get done when leaders of both parties do them together – from establishing Social Security to reforming welfare,” the letter reads. “We now call on you to find the common ground necessary to put our fiscal house in order.”

The rest of the letter is just as vague. Suffice to say: This is not how movements succeed. They don’t exist without real demands and specific positions. Has Students for a Debt Deal learned something from the Obama administration’s famous negotiating tactics?  

The campaign incorrectly focuses on “partisan bickering” as the real enemy, not the proposed cuts or the toxic, one-sided, right-wing discourse that has dominated the whole affair. If not compromising means a stubborn defense of federal student aid, or a “partisan” defense of Social Security and Medicare, then not compromising is the right thing to do. If the budget deal includes savage cuts to the Pell Grants program, will Students for a Debt Deal be satisfied?

It’s hard to believe that the student “leaders” don’t have any preferences in how the current negotiations turn out. Maybe they actually don’t. But if they do, then they clearly know a lot more about resume building than they do about effective political organizing. 


Cole Stangler writes about labor and the environment. His reporting has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Republic and International Business Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at] Follow him @colestangler.

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