12/18/2012 08:49 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

Fiscal Cliff From the Perspective of a College Student

For college students, the end of the year is traditionally marked by final exams. This year, however, they aren't the only ones with a set of must-pass tests.

Congress faces a slew of deadlines before they go home for the holidays. The fiscal cliff, a cocktail of tax hikes and spending cuts set to take effect at the start of 2013, has the potential to stifle an already slow economic recovery. While the negotiations center on issues important to older folks -- entitlement cuts and income tax rates, among others -- the youth's already collapsing confidence in Congress to do anything meaningful could be at stake.

Surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center reveal the so-called Millennials still have more trust in the government than their older counterparts -- but it has dropped precipitously in recent years. And while the youngest generation generally thinks the government could do more to solve national problems, they are also more open than other generations to significant entitlement reform, including more privatization. This leaves both parties an opening to win the support of young voters, if framed correctly.

In terms of the issues on the negotiating table, only a few explicitly target college students. The sequester, an across the board cut to nearly all programs and services in the federal government, would likely include cuts to financial aid. Perhaps the most dire consequence of a failed negotiation is the reaction financial markets could have, including a stock market crash and a downgrade to our national credit rating. So if you have a nice signing bonus from that consulting job you just landed, you may want to wait to invest it until after the issue is resolved.

The most relevant part of fiscal cliff negotiations for both college students and the broader population is the tone it will set for the coming year. Looking beyond our immediate fiscal bind, both parties in Congress have signaled an interest in pursuing major legislative issues -- immigration reform and solving the long-term debt and deficit problems facing the federal government, among others. If Republicans and Democrats can't reach a compromise on the fiscal cliff, it won't bode well for a debate on larger issues.

To be clear, averting the fiscal cliff before the end of the year is not essential to a successful resolution. It may take the shock of a crashing stock market to get lawmakers interested in finding common ground. But if the 113th Congress convenes without having made any progress - and the partisan intractability that plagued the previous Congress continues -- don't be surprised if the optimistic tone regarding immigration and deficit reduction quickly dissipates.

We should all hope Congress reaches a solution that sets a much needed precedent of principled compromise for both parties. The American people, strict partisans and disenchanted independents alike, need to see that it's possible to pass legislation with elements of both party's ideologies without sacrificing core values.

After a bitterly divisive election, Republicans and Democrats should work together to solve the problems they created. Not only should lawmakers avert the fiscal cliff to prevent the U.S. from facing even more economic turmoil, they should do it to send a strong signal of progress to the American people.

It's high time Congress and the president pull an all-nighter and put this self-imposed crisis behind them -- other issues are in dire need of attention. If they want to make the grade in the eyes of young voters, this is an essential test.