Impact of student vote likely to increase in '84

A rebirth of interest in politics among US college students, while yielding only modest results in elections earlier this month, could blossom into wider participation in 1984.

The key to renewed interest in the electoral process may be bread-and-butter issues - student aid and jobs. Until recently, these had been eclipsed by more traditional student concerns, such as the environment, nuclear weapons, and women's rights.

But spokesmen for two national student organizations and several congressional campaigns say they expect the political weight of the nation's 12 million college students to grow as continued poor economic conditions and threats of further cuts in student aid rouse not only students, but their parents as well.

As evidence, they point to:

* Demonstrations across the United States last spring - and right up the Capitol steps - protesting cuts in aid.

* Establishment earlier this year of the National Student Political Action Committee (NSPAC), which plans to step up its fledgling efforts to train students in the art of campaign work.

* Results in a small number of congressional races where students, if not the deciding factor, gave their candidates valuable footwork and healthy vote margins.

''This was the experimental year for us,'' says Joe Sweeney, NSPAC's secretary-treasurer. Noting that the NSPAC was victorious in eight of 12 targeted House and Senate contests, he adds,''We learned quite a bit about the electoral process, and we expect the momentum behind the education issue to carry us through to even better results two years from now.''

Student organizations already are gearing up for next year's Student Lobby Day - tentatively set for March 7. They're hoping for a bigger turnout than the 7,500 students who demonstrated on the Capitol steps last spring against cuts in education.

''With rumors on the next Reagan budget pointing to even more cuts in student aid, we're looking for a good response,'' says Miriam Rosenberg, national director of the Coalition of Independent Colleges and University Students.

Between now and the 1984 elections, both her organization and the United States Student Association, the 30-year-old organization that founded the NSPAC, plan to train students in congressional lobbying and campaign work.

Assessing this month's election results, Mr. Sweeney points to Michigan's Sixth Congressional District, where NSPAC-backed Democrat Robert Carr wrested his old seat from Republican Rep. James Dunn.

Mr. Dunn, who rode into office on President Reagan's coattails, faced mounting disapproval from conservative Democrats in East Lansing and Pontiac, as well as from the district's 18,000 Michigan State University students. Both candidates courted the student vote, but Mr. Carr successfully tied student-aid cuts to the one-term Republican. Carr won the race by 6,300 votes - and with more than two-thirds of the student vote.

''It's the perfect example of the kind of district where students can have a major impact on the outcome of a race,'' says Sweeney, ''both in terms of their weight at the polling booth and through the campaign work they can do.'' He says students were particularly effective where unemployment is high.

Other observers of college voting note that in general the more liberal students tend to vote where they go to school, while the more conservative students tend to vote by absentee ballot in their home districts. This pattern is a boon to the liberal candidate in districts with a high student population, such as Michigan's Sixth, or Massachusetts' Fourth. There, liberal Democrat Barney Frank benefited from heavy student support at four district colleges to help him defeat Republican Margaret Heckler in a race where two incumbents were pitted against each other due to redistricting.

Dunn campaign worker Mark Hoffman says he believes student weight in electoral politics is on the rise.

''Students are becoming more political but less one-issue oriented,'' Mr. Hoffman says, noting that a fall survey at MSU showed students most concerned not about nuclear disarmament or the environment, but about education, jobs, and the economy. ''Students are looking beyond college to the job market, and right now that's not a pleasant place to be in Michigan.''

Indeed, college placement officers across the US say this year's graduating class faces the worst job prospects in at least 10 years. Fewer companies are interviewing on campuses, with many planning to cut their annual graduate hiring by 15 percent or more.

Still, student organizers say it is the issue of financial aid and its immediate impact on student wallets - and family budgets - that will go the farthest in galvanizing the student political force.

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