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January 14, 2019

Government Shutdown Hurts College Campuses

The shutdown’s effects on university students should motivate political activism.

It is week four of the government shutdown. Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for a border wall with Mexico did not go over well with Democrats, who now control the House of Representatives. Without coming to an agreement on funding appropriations for the 2019 fiscal year—or at least a temporary solution—the government has partially shut down, and Trump has threatened that this shutdown could last for months or years, as long as it takes to secure funding for the wall.  

While Trump and his supporters in Congress are bearing the political backlash for this partial shutdown, it is the American people who are suffering most. In fact, over 800,000 employees have already been furloughed, and, as of January 11, the shutdown has cost the United States government over 3.6 billion dollars. We all saw how the UChicago community galvanized around the midterm elections, and these staggering statistics have me wondering if we can do anything about this shutdown. Indeed, while dealing with a government shutdown is a lot less sexy than electing a candidate for office, young people may be more apt to get involved in this crisis once they know about the far-reaching consequences of the shutdown and how it affects students and educators across the country.

First, the shutdown has significantly impacted federal money allocated for college education. While the shutdown does not affect students’ abilities to qualify for new federal financial aid (such as Pell Grants) and allows this year’s FAFSAs to be processed, it is harmful in many other ways. The Department of Education has stopped providing customer services on specific financial aid packages, and the ombudsman’s office is shut down, so no complaints about aid packages can be filed. The longer the shutdown lasts, the more backlogged the office will be when employees return, meaning students may have trouble securing adequate aid for the next school year. Furthermore, furloughed employees who are still paying off student loans have to continue making payments, despite the fact that their own paychecks are not coming in.

In addition, the shutdown will have effects on federally funded research at universities. On its webpage about finding funding for projects, UChicago’s Research Administration website lists a plethora of federal opportunities including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy. While current projects will continue to receive funding, no new grant applications will be processed until the government reopens, which could cause many labs and research centers around the country and on our campus to suspend operations, unsure if they will continue to receive funding into the next year.

Some groups have been proactive about developing compensation systems for furloughed employees. The shutdown has galvanized members of the education community, such as the American Federation of Teachers, which represents both teachers as well as other federal employees. This group has started an interest-free loan program, offering loans up to $1,500 with no payments due until after the shutdown is over. This innovative way of helping affected employees is a great step toward diminishing the effects of losing paychecks.

While congressional leaders are supposedly in dialogue with Trump in hopes of new getting the government up and running, very little social activism has revolved around this issue. Federal workers have rallied in several cities to protest, but students have in large part been absent from these protests, likely because the adult population is more directly affected. But, given that this shutdown is actually affecting students, recent graduates, and universities around the country, it is in our best interest to enter this conversation. In the past, students have tackled political challenges with social media activism, protests, and demonstrations. Last year, students took control of the national debate over gun control by organizing rallies and lobbying lawmakers in response to the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Of course, only Congress can end the shutdown. But we as students can tell our stories. If you, your family, or your research has been affected by this shutdown, call your representatives and let them know. Tell your representatives how Trump’s political agenda is impeding your ability to learn. The last thing that Trump needs is more angry young people—and it is by voicing our opinions about this shutdown that we can make our anger clear.

Alexa Perlmutter is a second-year in the College.

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