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Students Strapped with increasing debt

America's young people are having a harder and harder time getting ahead in today's society, and according to author Tamara Draut, it's not their fault.

Draut's controversial first work published in January, Strapped effectively frames the new challenges facing young people with compelling statistics and a dozen narratives by 20- and 30-somethings.

According to Draut, factors that helped our parent's transition to adulthood like access to jobs with fair wages, a robust economy, and public policies to promote economic mobility have all but vanished in our generation.

It is no secret that in today's world, a college diploma is becoming a necessity. The average salary of a young adult with a high school diploma was $42,630 in 1972, adjusted to 2002 dollars. In 2002, a young person with only a high school diploma earned $29,647. While the value of a degree increases, it is getting harder and harder to obtain one, according to the book.

Nearly three quarters of all graduating seniors pursue some level of higher education. However, Draut says few of these students make it to graduation; less than a third of young adults age 25 to 29 had a bachelor's degree in 2003. The reason? "We've seen a pretty large shift in the way we help young people pay for college," said Draut said in a phonem interview. "It's just not working anymore."

The average college graduate is about $21, 000 in debt according to David Gin, Director of Student Administrative Services and Financial Aid at the M Center. That's just financial aid debt, though; factor in credit cards and additional loans and many students find themselves close to $50,000 in debt straight out of college.

Many young adults find themselves unable to obtain a degree, and if they do, they take 8 or more years to do it because of financial constraints. "That's becoming the norm; it isn't as straight a line as it used to be," said Draut, who says the average age of undergraduates is 26 years old.

"Acceptance of status quo is one of the reasons I wanted to write this book," said Draut, who spends her day job researching economic security and the middle class with Demos, a national think tank in New York City. Draut recognizes that the challenges facing young people are "really at a tipping point where people are realizing it's too much."

Young adults often find themselves being compared to the parents, who lived in a generation much different than today. This is one of Draut's arguments junior Tina Sogliuzzo says she can identify with. "My stepmother was telling me 'I worked myself through college so you should be able to too,'" said junior Tina Sogliuzzo, who will be over $50,000 in debt by her graduation.

Debt or no debt, students are lucky to get through college. If they don't, most are left to work low-wage jobs and to combine incomes in a marriage or union. There is little room for error or hard times when wages are stretched so thinly; moving into the middle class can seem an impossible task.

U.S. citizens are finding it harder and harder to take the last step that officially moves them into the middle class: buying a home. Not only that, but most young adults are having a hard time finding a reasonable place to rent; four out of ten young adults move back home at least once in their lives, according to the book. Cities like Olympia, Newark, and even Oakland, where people once chose to live as an alternative to their larger sister cities, are becoming out of reach.

Additionally, America is less family friendly than ever before. "When it comes to navigating the many obstacles of new parenthood," Draut writes, "in this country you're on your own." A new baby can put families in the hole financially. One new father described by Draut said he had been living paycheck to paycheck before the birth of his child; he turned to credit cards to deal with the extra costs of the baby.

We've worked ourselves to this place by creating a deficit that's spiraling out of control, said Draut, who says she wrote her book to start dialogue and effect change, not necessarily to provide solutions. "I want to empower youth to realize they can make a change," she said.

Draut does offer some solutions in her book, even though that was not the purpose. First, she suggests making college affordable for everyone. "The current system creates an enormous social waste. If we had just helped that person to get a degree in four years we would be much better off," she said. Second, she emphasizes the need to create more good jobs. Finally, she demands "spread the wealth" incentives to help more people to move into the middle class, or at least to gain more financial security.

Draut gave Mills students some suggestions for success after graduation. She recommends all soon-to-be graduates consolidate their loans and consider staying with their parents for a short period to build up savings before committing to paying rent of their own. Finally, she stressed the importance of political involvement and advocacy. "This is what will create the change," she said.

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