By Mary Ellen Flannery
President Obama headed to college campuses in Iowa and Colorado on Tuesday, where he reminded young people that they simply can’t stay home this November—not unless they want to allow Mitt Romney to slam shut the doors of opportunity at institutions of higher learning.
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Over the past four years, when it comes to higher education, Obama has “put his money where his mouth is,” noted NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen in a radio interview earlier this week. He has invested in Pell Grants, the federal government’s largest student aid program, enabling hundreds of thousands of needy Americans to get job skills and access their dreams. At the same time, he has made it easier for middle-class students to borrow money directly from the federal government, and then manage their debt through new income-based repayment plans.
His opponents in Congress, on the other hand, fought to remove 500,000 students from the Pell program earlier this year, and Romney said he would rather have students borrow money from private lenders, who could profit from higher interest rates.
With these records in mind, the upcoming election presents a clear choice for students—with equally obvious consequences for their tuition bills and future career plans. But the question is: will they actually turn out and vote? If David Tjaden, the NEA Student program chair, has anything to do with it, the answer is a resounding yes.
“Our young people and college students in this country are informed, they are excited, and they want to vote,” said Tjaden. “And that is great news for a demographic that has had consistent low turnout over the years and has been criticized for not being an active part of the democratic process.”
Voters under 30 represent about one in four eligible voters in 2012, according to the Fair Elections Legal Network. But only about one in five young people actually voted in 2010, which lags significantly behind the overall participation rate of nearly one in two. Studies show that young people are no less engaged with the issues, but that restrictions such as residency rules and strict identification requirements create barriers to voting that disproportionately affect their rights. And this is especially true this year, as critical states such as Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have enacted new voter laws that create significant barriers for students, as well as poor and minority voters, in casting their ballots.
NEA is working with the Fair Election Legal Network to make sure students get the information they need to be able to vote. With their Campus Vote Project, students, faculty and staff can get tools to activate voters. Meanwhile, the NEA Student program also will be hosting dozens of rallies this fall, asking students to sign non-partisan voter commitment cards.
Students: You can sign a voter commitment card, too.
“This week in Tampa my opponents will offer you their agenda. Don’t boo. Vote,” Obama told the crowd of 13,000-plus at Colorado State University. “That’s the best response. Vote and get some of your friends to vote.”