In the U.S. there are about 20 million students enrolled in higher education at the moment, with that number expected to grow in the coming decade.

The student class has long been politicized as a symbol for the country’s possible future. The educated and optimistic youth show the potential for what our nation could accomplish as we move forward. This line of reasoning, of course, is brought out when any national tragedy occurs as a rhetorical tool — usually advocating for new regulation or stringent control.

“But think of the children.”

Students in K-12 are often encouraged to attend college as a means of advancing their future career, whether or not it is within their means. It may be reasonable to say that college is a prudent choice depending on what field the individual wants to go into, but the actual experience of students is so difficult that it can cause the student to give up on the dreams they once aspired to.

The amount of total student debt owed in the U.S. has been steadily rising and sat at 1.5 trillion during the first quarter of 2019, leaving a little less than half of all students that attend college in some form of debt.

One has to wonder how much we as a society care about our student class.

On the one hand, we view college as a method for economic mobility, while on the other hand, it is a serious impediment that leaves many in debt for decades. But it’s important to remember why this happens in the first place.

Since the 1980s, states have gradually moved funding away from higher education, shifting the financial burden of tuition on the students instead. With this deliberate shift in funding, individual students are forced to take on debt to continue their education. In other words, the poverty thrust upon students is quite intentional and working just as designed to.

UT, for instance, has tuition hikes before the fall semesters. This year seeing a 2% hike on its Knoxville campus. It could be argued that the increase in tuition is a response to rising costs on the part of the university, but at the same time our new Chancellor, Donde Plowman, is also the highest paid chancellor in the history of the university.

No doubt there are a multitude of problems on the UTK campus alone that rival the burden of student debt.

The collective hostility towards our LGBT+ students and the increasing presence of far-right and white nationalist displays creates an environment that can’t be worth the abhorrent tuition we’re being charged. Even things directly under the control of the university, such as adequate access to food and housing, are often neglected in favor of other programs.

Whether or not society or the university itself values its students, we should not wait for the changes we want to see to be handed down to us.

Students have power over universities precisely because they rely so much on student tuition for their funding. We give the paycheck, and we have the power — that’s what it comes down to. Without the students — and the faculty that keep it alive — the university as an institution wouldn’t exist. The only reason we do not express that power is because we don’t have the collective bargaining to make demands, but if students were to exercise that power then we couldn’t be so idly ignored.

Student activism has had a long history in the U.S., from its recognizable peak during the 1968 uprisings to modern student protests in response to police shootings. Even now, it’s continued through YDSA (Young Democratic Socialists of America) with the organization’s “College for All” campaign dedicated to student activism.

Since students focus on issues on and off college campuses, refining our collective power is key to any movement composed of students.

In Europe, for instance, students have proper unions in the same way we have labor unions in the U.S. These unions function in much of the same way, using their legal and financial power to support movements based on the interests of its members. The U.S. has had attempts similar to this — notably the American Student Union in the 1930’s — but no successful attempt has been permanently established.

The creation of a proper student union to coalesce student interests is far off, but there is no denying the power that students wield. Through the proper channels student interests can be cultivated so we are no longer marginalized, subject to the whims of both state and society. Whether or not each student movement reaches its goals is not the point. The exercising of our power itself is worth the task, simply as a reminder that we are not the subject of those that take advantage.

YDSA is an organization for leftist students at the University of Tennessee. If you have any questions, you can reach out to Helen Law at hlaw1@vols.utk.edu.

Columns and letters of The Daily Beacon are the views of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Beacon or the Beacon's editorial staff.

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