Women. Power. Peace.

What Comes After Graduation

628px-Boston_downtown_skylineby Elizabeth King, WAND Office Manager

Graduation season is in full swing here in Boston. That means weekend after weekend of commencement ceremonies including Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University and other world renowned schools handing out diplomas to their graduating seniors.

On May 8th, I received my Master of Arts in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations and Diplomacy from Northeastern University. After years of hard work and months of both working full-time and going to graduate school full-time, I am finally done.

As proud as I am of this accomplishment, it feels almost bittersweet. After finishing all my coursework I can now take a breath of fresh air, but one looming task still remains -- my student loans.

In a job market where higher education is crucial to modern success -- the price tags on these degrees are astronomical. Everyone agrees about the value of higher education, yet our federal budget does not reflect education as a priority. For over a decade, the Pentagon has received more than half of the nation's discretionary budget. For the next fiscal year, over $600 billion is slotted for the Pentagon, nuclear weapons, and war. And what does education get? Only $74 billion, which is distributed amongst our nation's entire critical education infrastructure, including Head Start, early childhood education, Pell grants, Title I programs, Stafford loans, and school nutrition programs.

From firsthand experience I know that many college seniors graduate with incredible anxiety, wondering if they will ever be able to find a job. As more and more students graduate with significant education debt, the economic pressure on us is extraordinary. Where will those jobs come from?

In recent studies, University of Massachusetts economists have shown that federal investments in education, infrastructure, healthcare, veterans' care, energy development, environmental protection, and other domestic programs create more jobs than spending the same amounts on the Pentagon; an enormous Pentagon budget will not buy us economic security. We must make investments in the sectors that will strengthen America's economy and help graduates have successful futures; after all, we who graduate today are the leaders of tomorrow.

As my generation prepares to take leadership, the decision-makers of today need to make sure that the nation that we inherit has a strong legacy. Yet on our current path, the future left to us is fraught with peril. From unwanted, obsolete weapons systems of bygone eras beset with cost overruns, to a $1 trillion price tag on modernizing our nuclear weapons arsenal, our defense infrastructure is littered with waste. Pentagon authorities have acknowledged that poor accounting and budget practices waste lots of money, but just how much money remains a mystery since the Pentagon's books have never been audited.

Now, Congress is planning to increase the Pentagon's inappropriate reliance on the "Overseas Contingency Operations" -- a $90 billion war-spending slush fund that gives the Pentagon even more funding on top of its base budget and evades Congressionally-mandated budget caps put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act. The education programs that serve our nation's youth and young adults are hurting for funding, yet the Pentagon gets an enormous slush fund? Imagine all the school lunches, Head Start programs, college scholarships, and financial aid that could be paid for with $90 billion. Isn't it time that Congress changes its priorities?

As the budget debate continues in Washington, I hope that Congress will think about the millions of students across the nation just like me, whose futures are being shaped as they graduate into the current work force. They all deserve a chance to wear a cap and gown, walk across the stage, achieve, and be prepared for their future, without significant education debt. Let's not shortchange our students' tomorrow by not investing our tax dollars properly today.

Elizabeth King, a native of Acton, MA, is a recent graduate of Northeastern University with a Master of Arts in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations and Diplomacy. She is currently on the staff of Women's Action for New Directions (WAND), a national women's peace organization based in Arlington, MA.

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