By: Kelly Field
It’s the final day of negotiations over the controversial “gainful employment” rule, and Rory O’Sullivan, the sole student representative on the panel, is getting frustrated.
For weeks leading up to the December hearing, he has been politely urging the U.S. Department of Education to write a rule that puts students’ interests first. Now, at the 11th hour, the department has agreed to a trio of changes sought by for-profit colleges that would weaken the rule, intended to tie colleges’ eligibility for federal aid to their borrowers’ ability to repay their debt.
Mr. O’Sullivan, the policy and research director for Young Invincibles, doesn’t hide his disillusionment. Normally calm and polished, he becomes visibly upset, his voice rising and face reddening.
“Before I was involved in this process, I had some idea that the department would care what students think,” he tells the panel. “That has not been the case.”
“It has,” he finishes, “been quite an education.”
For Mr. O’Sullivan and Young Invincibles, a youth-advocacy group that represents 18- to 34-year-olds, it’s the latest lesson in how Washington works.
Four years after it was founded by a pair of Georgetown law students who wanted a say in the nation’s health-care debate, Young Invincibles has grown into one of the largest, most influential youth-advocacy groups in Washington. With friends in the White House and the backing of wealthy foundations, the group has gained a seat at the table in national debates over health care, student aid, and youth unemployment.
In the past two years, the group has been asked to introduce legislation, tapped to testify before both chambers of Congress, and picked over more established student groups for federal rule-making panels.
Yet as Young Invincibles matures, and extends its reach from the nation’s capital into state legislatures, its leaders are also discovering the limits of their influence, and the challenges of representing a demographic that spans 16 years and every level of education, from high-school dropouts to Ph.D.’s.
Young Invincibles started with modest goals. Aaron Smith and Ari Matusiak, then third-year law students at Georgetown University, felt that young people weren’t being heard in the health-care debate, so they recruited a few friends and Mr. Smith’s sister into a group that would speak for 18- to 34-year-olds.
“We were talking about changing one of the most important systems in the country, and young people weren’t involved,” recalls Mr. Smith. “Worse, they didn’t seem to care.”
The friends created a one-page website inviting young people to share their stories, and began planning a lobby day for the fall of 2009. To be ironic, they called themselves Young Invincibles, the health-insurance industry’s term for young people who forgo coverage because they (supposedly) believe themselves invulnerable.
Then they got their big break. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, was preparing to announce a plan that would allow young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance until the age of 26. When her aides heard about Young Invincibles’ lobby day, they asked the group to help introduce the provision.
“They were in the right place at the right time,” says one Senate Democratic aide, who, like others quoted here, didn’t want to be named because she was not authorized to speak on a boss’s behalf. Congressional Democrats needed to show they had the support of young people, and most of the traditional student groups had stayed on the sidelines of the debate. For the fledgling Young Invincibles, “there wasn’t much fray to get above,” one former student advocate says.
The October 13 news conference catapulted Young Invincibles onto the national stage. Within days, its leaders were doing interviews with major political publications.
“There was a huge appetite to talk to young people about this,” says Mr. Smith, whose mother is a Democratic state assemblywoman in New York. “And because we were law students, we got into the nitty-gritty of the policy in a way that was somewhat unique.”
“We just got lucky with timing,” he adds.
The group’s endorsement of the president’s health-care plan “bought them a lot of love in the White House,” says one House Democratic aide, getting them “more access than most organizations dream of.”
After the bill passed, in March of 2010, Young Invincibles lobbied the administration to hold college-sponsored health plans to the same standards as private-market plans. White House officials hesitated, wary of angering colleges and backtracking on a promise to “grandfather in” many existing plans, but ultimately agreed.
Nancy-Ann DeParle, the White House official then in charge of implementing the law, says she saw the group as “a more formidable force” than the college lobby.
“They were adorable, but they were really smart and tough,” says Ms. DeParle, who left the White House in 2013. “Truth be told, I kind of wanted them to go away. But they weren’t going to.”
Over the next several weeks, the White House worked with Young Invincibles and the American Council on Education on a plan that expanded coverage for students but kept costs down for colleges.
A few weeks later, the group persuaded the Treasury Department to allow young people to get tax credits to purchase health insurance through an exchange, even if they are eligible to remain on their parents’ plans.
Since then, Young Invincibles has focused on selling the law to young adults. With support from several foundations and the Department of Health and Human Services, the group has trained more than 1,000 youth-serving organizations and signed up students at community colleges in New York, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
Meanwhile, the group has leveraged its connections and political good will into a role in other national debates. Congressional Democrats consider it an ally on student-aid and work-force issues.
But the group’s close ties to the Obama administration—which Mr. Matusiak himself joined in January 2011, eventually becoming director of private-sector engagement—have drawn suspicion from some Republicans. One Senate GOP aide dismisses the group as “a shill for the Obama administration.”
Mr. Smith says his group supports Obamacare, as Republicans dubbed the health-care law, because “it is overall a very good deal for young adults.” He points out that Young Invincibles has criticized the administration on “a host of issues,” including youth unemployment and student-loan interest rates.
Ronnie Cho, the former associate director of the Office of Public Engagement at the White House, says Young Invincibles “weren’t shy about voicing their disappointment” with the president’s student-loan bill, and pressed the administration to do more to create jobs for young people.
“If they felt the administration was falling short, they would let us know,” he says.
Still, he acknowledges that the administration probably was “helpful in their growth and elevating their profile.”
“We had vetted them,” he says.
When the founders of Young Invincibles graduated from Georgetown Law School, in the spring of 2010, the group had a staff of two—Mr. Smith and Jen Mishory, a law-school classmate—and a budget of $140,000 in grants from two health-care foundations. It shared office space with the Center for Community Change, a nonprofit incubator that provides the group with administrative support.
Today Young Invincibles has 40 employees, offices in four states and the District of Columbia, and a budget of more than $4-million. Last fall it moved its D.C. office from hip U Street to 14th and K Streets, three blocks from the White House, on the city’s famous lobbying corridor. The group is working to separate from the Center for Community Change, whose board includes union leaders and Democratic activists, and become an independent nonprofit.
The group is still run by young adults (its oldest employee is 34), and for many of them, the issues they focus on are personal. Mr. Smith was uninsured after college and had to pay hundreds of dollars for an X-ray showing “that I needed to rest my foot” after a soccer injury. Mr. Smith, Ms. Mishory, and Mr. O’Sullivan are all on income-based repayment plans for their law-school debt.
But the group’s leaders are the products of elite colleges and have never struggled with unemployment, as many millennials have in recent years. Those facts, coupled with the group’s lack of dues-paying members, has led some in Washington to question who Young Invincibles represents. Is it really the voice of 18- to 34-year-olds, as it aspires to be? Or is it a think tank that operates with input from a self-selected group of like-minded (and equally indebted) yuppies?
“They’re supportive of access and affordability, but it’s not something they’ve had to deal with.”
David A. Bergeron, a longtime Education Department official who now works with the progressive Center for American Progress and its youth-advocacy arm, Generation Progress, sees Young Invincibles as more in the latter camp. As he puts it, the Young Invincibles leaders “went to private law schools, so debt is a big issue for them.”
“They’re supportive of access and affordability, but it’s not something they’ve had to deal with,” he says.
Mr. Bergeron places the group at the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum from the United States Student Association, the group he says is “most representative of the vast majority of students.”
USSA, a 67-year-old organization with chapters on 25 public college campuses in nine states, has a democratically elected board of directors and leadership. The association’s $200,000 budget comes directly from students, through membership fees, though its foundation receives roughly $500,000 in support from outside groups. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer group with a presence on 75 campuses, follows a similar funding model, though its agenda is broader.
Both groups have staff members in Washington, but they specialize in grass-roots organizing—getting students to sign petitions, write letters to the editor, and travel to D.C. to lobby their legislators.
Young Invincibles does not have “members,” per se, instead relying on a large email list and Facebook following, which it uses to take the temperature of its base through surveys and polls. Though it does some organizing, its strengths lie in the wonkery of policy making and analysis. Its funding comes almost entirely from large foundations, with Atlantic Philanthropies and the Joyce, Kresge, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations each contributing at least $200,000 last year.
The group’s structure and financing has some advantages over the traditional student advocacy model. Without a classic “constituency” to answer to, or much bureaucracy to navigate, Young Invincibles can be quicker than the traditional student groups to respond to lawmakers’ requests for information or endorsements, Congressional aides say.
“They are very fluid and responsive,” says a Senate Democratic aide. “They cater to what we want.”
That also means that the group could, if so inclined, “cater to what the foundations want,” says a Senate Republican aide.
Meanwhile, some critics of Obamacare accuse Young Invincibles of putting ideology ahead of the interests of young adults, who will absorb a disproportionate share of the law’s costs, and question its ties to the AARP, listed as a “partner” on its website.
“They’re trying to sucker young people into buying something that isn’t in their best interest,” says Evan Feinberg of Generation Opportunity, a “free-thinking, liberty-loving” foil to the progressive Young Invincibles.
Mr. Smith counters that many millennials will qualify for Medicaid or tax subsidies, keeping their cost of coverage low. And he defends his group’s relationship with AARP, saying seniors and young people have many concerns in common.
Mr. Smith points out that less than 15 percent of Young Invincibles’ budget comes from any single foundation. He describes the group’s expansion into student aid and unemployment policy as consistent with its focus on economic opportunity for young adults.
In an effort to hear directly from young adults, the group has conducted two “listening tours,” with a third, focused on youth unemployment, scheduled for the fall. Its inaugural bus tour, in 2012, encompassed 21 states and 100 round-table discussions, half of them on college campuses.
Several of the events took place at community colleges, where a larger percentage of students are uninsured and where the group has focused its health-care outreach. But Mr. Smith says that it has been difficult to engage community-college students, many of whom are working adults, in his group’s campaigns.
“A community-college student who is working, with two kids—there is no better advocate than that,” he says. “But that is the student that is often the least heard from.”
Mr. Smith is the first to acknowledge that 18 to 34 is “a big demographic.” Still, he says there’s one thing many young adults have in common: student loans.
“Student-loan debt certainly unites a generation,” he says.
Young Invincibles’ first foray into student-aid policy was in 2011, when Ms. Mishory was chosen for a rule-making panel charged with putting in place the president’s Pay As You Earn loan-repayment plan. Her biggest contribution, other panelists say, was ensuring that borrowers on income-based plans would be notified when they needed to update their income information, and not simply kicked out of the plan for failing to do so. The change, while highly technical, will benefit thousands of borrowers.
In 2012, Young Invincibles joined other student groups in persuading Congress to keep interest rates low for an additional year, rather than allowing them to double. When the issue resurfaced the following year, the group challenged the president’s plan, saying its lack of a cap would leave future students vulnerable to rate hikes. In the end, the group opposed the compromise bill backed by Democratic leaders, saying the cap was set too high.
The fight split the student lobby and briefly strained Young Invincibles’ relationship with the White House. “It was sort of awkward,” Mr. Cho recalls. “But it didn’t keep us from working on other issues going forward.”
That fall, when the administration was crafting its college-affordability agenda, White House officials met with Young Invincibles several times to get ideas and feedback, says Ms. DeParle, who was by then the deputy chief of staff. Some of their suggestions made it into the president’s State of the Union speech, she says.
Later, the administration picked Mr. O’Sullivan to be the lead student representative on its “gainful employment” panel, making the legislative director of United States Student Association his alternate. Maxwell Love, the association’s vice president, calls the choice “telling.”
Mr. Love says lawmakers and regulators see Young Invincibles as more professional than traditional student groups. He acknowledges that his group could be more “polished” and “quicker to respond to things.” Still, he argues that students “need a voice in Washington that is actually made up of youth and students, and not just another 501(c)(3).”
Young Invincibles has also turned its attention to youth unemployment, arguing, in an analysis released this month, that out-of-work millennials are costing the country up to $25-billion a year in uncollected taxes and safety-net expenditures. The group is urging Congress to expand apprenticeships and the AmeriCorps national service program, while resurrecting Youth Opportunity Grants, a program focusing on at-risk youth.
And Young Invincibles is branching out into the states, opening offices in California, New York City, Chicago, and Houston. Its goal is to train students on 20 campuses to lobby their legislatures by the end of 2014.
But that effort, called the Student Impact Project, has gotten off to a slow start. At a December training at the University of Mary Washington, a small public college in Virginia, there were more pizzas on hand than students.
At one point, Tom Allison, Young Invincibles’ policy and research manager and an alumnus of the college, offered to help plan and to attend a January lobby day in Richmond that the student activists were organizing. Joe Dolan, the student-government leader in charge of the lobby day, says he worked with the college’s administration and suggested Mr. Allison coordinate with them.
After the event, Mr. Allison attributed the low turnout to the fact that it was the week before finals, and the night a popular political-science professor taught. Young Invincibles had left it up to a campus group to pick the date.
Contacted by email a few weeks later, Mr. Dolan says he invited Young Invincibles to help plan the lobbying event, but not to participate in it.
The student government “has an obligation to be beholden to the interests of University’s students,” he wrote. Young Invincibles’s goals, he says, are broader.
“We share interests, but they are not identical,” he says.