More than 300 area students between 14 and 18 years old ranked the cost of college education and jobs as the issues that concern them most. Of those eligible to vote, most respondents listed jobs and employment as their number one priority.
People between 18 and 29 face the largest unemployment rate in the country, and younger teenagers hope that will ease before they enter the work force.
“It’s what everyone is concerned about,” said Chrissy Faessen, vice president of communications and marketing for Rock the Vote, a nationwide group that encourages young people to vote. “Once elected into office, we need to hold these elected officials accountable for the issues in which this generation cares about.”
Seventeen-year-old Sophie Penwell’s birthday falls shy of voting eligibility, but she’s plugged into the election.
“I want a president who can bring economic prosperity,” said Penwell, a Glenwood High School senior who writes for The Voice, the State Journal-Register’s weekly youth section. “We need to cut wasteful government spending and cut taxes on our salaries. The middle class needs to gain strength.”
On top of a job shortage, many teenagers are headed to college and are concerned about student loans.
Students are right to be concerned, said Gerard Joseph, director of financial assistance at the University of Illinois Springfield. State funds have been stagnant, he said, and students have to apply earlier and earlier to try and access help from Illinois’ Monetary Assistance Program.
“You’ve got more students trying for the same pool of dollars,” Joseph said.
High school respondents also ranked quality of college education, elementary and high school education, and war, Iraq, Afghanistan and terrorism as their other leading concerns.
Students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign created the survey to gauge the issues most important to their peers.
“We saw how groups like Rock the Vote had tried — and mainly failed — to encourage voting and participating in political discourse by making it a “cool” thing to do,” said Professor Eric Meyer, who taught the I-Elect course this year with Professor Nancy Benson.
“The real problem, it seemed to us, was that people that age had trouble seeing how the issues specifically impacted them. Sometimes you have to explain to young people, in graphic details, how they really do have a stake in an issue,” Meyer said. “Truth is, most students really are interested in elections. They feel voting is an important civic duty... But they also at times feel overwhelmed by responsibility and the notion of fitting into society.”
Not a horse race
The U of I students did not ask which presidential candidates respondents planned to vote for because coverage of campaigns often focuses on the horse race atmosphere and daily poll results, Meyer said.
“We’re all interested in the score — who’s winning and who’s losing,” he said. “What we wanted to do was change the focus from the candidates to the issues themselves.”
Springfield’s high schoolers are engaged in the issues. When asked to numerically identify how well a candidate in the Nov. 6 election has addressed the issues personally important to them, the respondents gave an average score of 5.9 out of 10.
However, the number increased when they were asked how interested they are in what’s happening in the nation overall, in their hometowns and in the Nov. 6 election. The students averaged nearly 7 out of 10 for all those answers.
Even more, the students believe the election outcome is important. They selected an average of 7.3 when asked how much the Election Day races would affect “the lives of people like you.”
“This generation, they’re critically engaged, they’re participating, they’re volunteering at record levels... And they care a lot about their communities,” Faessen said. “Never underestimate this generation.”
Issues ranked most important by 63 young voters
Quality of college education
Cost of college education
Health care availability
(Tie) Elementary and high school education and pensions, Social Security