A generation struggles with the burden of student debt

Share on Facebook
Tweet on Twitter

In March, the Education Department rescinded an Obama-era federal guidance rule that prevented high fees from being charged on overdue private student loans if the borrower had entered a federal loan rehabilitation program. That comes in the wake of a 14 percent increase in student debt defaults in 2016, with millions of people not having made a payment last year. The current amount of total student loan debt is about $1.3 dollars, about $30,000 of debt for the average holder of student loans.

The Education Department’s rule change represents one more step toward making higher education unattainable for many Americans. Rather than help alleviate the financial hobbling of young people who are just starting their adult lives, American politicians and loan providers have consistently worked to make student debt more difficult to escape from, even in cases of hardship.

The primary cause of the rising tuition rates, which motivate students to take out loans, is the declining share of public money going into our higher education system. While students in many other countries have the option to use student loans to finance their education, the level of debt being taken on by American students is unfathomable by most observers outside the U.S.

Affordable access to higher education is seen in most places as an inseparable part of the social contract. It used to be thought of that way here. Previous American generations enjoyed college educations that could be financed by a middle-class family’s income or through part-time work and summer jobs. Affordable college and programs like the G.I. Bill ensured that Americans could earn degrees without being shackled at an early age by the huge levels of debt we see today. From the post-war era to the early 1970s, states made huge investments into higher education.

That’s really what the use of public funds for higher education is: an investment. The greatest predictor of someone’s economic potential is their level of education. Money spent on higher education can be counted on to be repaid many times over in taxes from the student’s future earnings. It’s also a civic investment. The whole of society is benefited by the civic culture and intellectual dynamism that comes with a highly educated citizenry. Even if you and your family don’t attend public universities, it makes sense to spend a small part of your tax obligations on creating an informed populace in order to reap the benefits of the more just, educated and free society that inevitably results.

Unfortunately, the idea of public investment in future generations has largely been abandoned in America. Higher education, a goal that should be attainable for anyone living in a country as prosperous as ours, is now being held hostage in a generational extortion scheme. The guilty parties are a conspiracy of private student loan companies, politicians too cowardly and craven to find the political will to make college affordable again, and a generation of baby boomers who, after taking full advantage of an affordable higher education system, have pulled the rug out from under our generation’s feet to fund entitlement programs that they disproportionately benefit from. A sociopathic horde of aging voters threatens any elected official who even thinks about challenging the redistribution of wealth to higher age brackets or who seeks to impose similar privatization efforts on boomer-benefiting programs like Medicare.

But the story of the boomers’ complicity in the gutting of public higher education is only half the story. The shift away from public funding of higher education is part of a decades-long project to turn universities into glorified vocational schools that young people must mortgage their futures to attend. Neoliberalism, the defining ideology of the American ruling class, dictates that higher education should be removed from the public sphere in favor of a privatized and corporatized system. That vision replaces the civic role of the university with a mandate to produce graduates who have studied only the subjects necessary to meet the private market’s current workforce needs. It attempts to suppress any consideration of democracy’s requirement of an educated citizenry. It does not value any curriculum that does not directly involve workplace skills, regardless of their benefit to the individual or the community. And most of all, it does not care that the cost of higher education has shifted from being a social responsibility to an individual obligation largely shouldered by those least able to cope with it: financially inexperienced young adults. These are features, not bugs, of education under neoliberalism. A university education is steadily becoming just another commodity.

Today, college students often graduate with debts that cause them to delay marriage, home ownership, travel and other important life decisions. Student debt is economically stifling for our generation, putting our dreams and aspirations on hold as we pay off our ransomed futures. The unprecedented level of student debt that exists today is an economic and social death spiral that uniquely harms young people. We must find a way to resist it and reform the higher education system, both for the sake of our own deferred dreams and those of future generations.