They had taken a direct hit the day before. To find out how it felt, I asked the 90 college students in my course on peace studies at American University to write their reactions to the Reagan administration's proposals to reduce student aid.
William Bennett, the new secretary of education, had supported cutting off loans and grants for more than 1 million students. The limit would be $4,000 a student yearly and $32,500 family income. For the victims, Bennett socked them with sarcasm: It is time for "divestiture" of stereos, cars and beach vacations.
I have a diverse class -- undergraduates from 18 to 22, a retired coal miner, a native Alaskan, a neighborhood mother, foreign students (Kuwait, India, Bahrain, Nepal), the president of the campus chapter of Young Americans for Freedom and a left-of- left 20-year-old woman who has twice been to Nicaragua on school breaks to serve the poor.
The diversity is refreshing to me, but the differences among the students constrict like bolts tightening into place when the subject is William Bennett's thinking. Except for five or six students who supported the secretary, everyone else found the Reagan administration's crabbed ideas about college students and their finances either grossly biased or absurdly unworkable.
The picture that emerges from these 90 papers counters the one offered by Bennett of many students -- of private-school rich kids scamming the government for grants and loans. American University is private, but well over half the kids in my class -- a representative group -- are working. Many have two jobs. One students has three. A fair number work full-time, and then scratch around for night courses that fit into their degree program.
One senior told of the doubling of costs since her first semester in college. The rise is due to regular increases in tuition and the decreases in Social Security survivor benefits. She writes: "I am making it because I have worked part-time all through school and full-time in the summers (while) taking night classes. My family cannot afford to help me substantially since I also have a brother in college and a sister beginning next year. I have benefitted from university scholarships because of my grades but I still have to take out a guaranteed student loan from the bank and other loans from the government to cover tuition and expenses."
That student has loans out for more than $15,000. A classmate, in her late twenties, was once in a similar fix. She was forced to leave school to earn enough money to come back. Another student is working 30 hours a week, which is a rest from her summer schedule of 70 hours in "two jobs day and night to save for the next school year." She argues that under Bennett's plans "the poor and the rich will get an education and the middle class will get the shaft as usual. . . . How are parents supposed to squeeze their wallets any tighter when they have others in school, several loans out and barely making ends meet?"
This student has a three-year-old $100 stereo, no car and "can't afford a trip anywhere -- even home to New York."
From the papers, I sensed that only about one in five students was at the university under ideal conditions: no financial aid, no jobs, and parents paying in full. Several students said they knew of campus leeches who didn't seem to need aid but wrangled some anyway. Another told of a friend who ran up debts but has found a dodge to avoid paying them.
These offenses against fairness came up in a number of papers, but they were few compared with what most others saw as the unfairness of the Reagan administration.
American education is in vibrant condition when a student can write, as one of mine did, that "Bennett's words come straight from his heart, which is hollow. How can you possibly want to cut student aid? That money goes to a good cause . . . There are many families that earn more than $32,500 that have many children close in age. They can't possibly afford to send, let's say, four kids at one time to school. It's also a cop-out saying the kids spend the aid on cars and stereos. It's just an excuse, and a lousy one at that."
In addition to these in-class essays, I asked the students to pick one word to describe their feelings about Bennett's thinking. The YAF president, a quick- witted and likable lad, said "justifiable." That was the minority view. These were typical of the majority: confused, irrational, horrifying, idiotic, spaced-out, addle-minded, unbelievable, barbaric.
A peace-studies class is a fit scene for students to discuss the politics of tuition. Economic war has been declared on the 90 kids in my class, and millions more across the country. They are fighting back with sure-fire weapons: sound ideas and stories of personal sacrfice. It is hard to imagine that Congress will abandon the students.