Student Debt is a Crushing Problem for Millennials

The burden of student debt is a crushing problem for the millennial generation.  This should be stating the obvious, as total student debt has surpassed one trillion dollars.  Countless articles and blog posts have been written about the problem and thousands of speeches call for a solution to end the crisis, but the problem has no obvious remedy or foreseeable ending.

Why does this matter? Because college matters—and not just for the impact it has on economic growth. There are many valid (and perhaps not-so-valid) reasons why so many people go to college, beyond the simple belief that a college degree is necessary to get a good job. Perhaps it’s to live and play in a beautiful city.  Perhaps it’s to meet a new and diverse group of people who can help to shape your worldview.  Yet many college students would also like to be able to get an excellent job one day and be able to earn enough money to send their kids to the same institutions that perhaps left them with over $50,000 in college debt.

And that last desire, fellow millennials, is the problem.  Many of us have children, or, at least, many of us plan on having children, and we will have to pay to send our children to college—the same institutions that have led us to accumulate over one-trillion dollars in student loan debt.  Can we afford it?  Most of us want to help our kids get college degrees, as we understand that attending college is about more than just earning a degree; however, escalating costs and the burden of massive debt have us worried.

In 1992 Admiral James Stockdale in the Vice-Presidential Debate introduced himself by uncomfortably posing the questions “Who am I?  Why am I here?”  His questions and the delivery of his subsequent response became one of the most cringe-worthy moments in American campaign history. But in fact, the much-maligned Stockdale had introduced himself to the American public with some of the deepest questions of Western culture—the very same questions Socrates admonishes all Athenians to ask, lest one lead an “unexamined life,’ which would be “not worth living.”  “Know thyself,” the phrase inscribed upon the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, is also the special imperative of a journey through college.

We were challenged by our professors to think critically about real world issues. They prodded us with questions that were directed at helping us think through what we believed and why.  Figuring out what we believed was the first step in finding out who we were and why we were at the university.  By offering my own ideas, I discovered how the beliefs that I held had a long and rich history, and in sharing my ideas, I joined a conversation that was at once centuries old and brand new.

As a first-generation American (the son and grandson of Italian immigrants), I arrived at college with a set of values that was different from others’ around the campus. But many others experienced the same rewards of a college education that defined my time in those years. We became both teachers and learners; we exchanged ideas with those from widely different backgrounds and learned about our various backgrounds, histories, cultures—and saw glimpses of our true selves.  I learned that I am both an individual and also part of a world that needs each and every one of us to participate, to comment, to ask, like Socrates did, who we are and why we are here.  Much like St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions, sharing that he could not fully understand himself unless he searched for God and Truth, the search for ourselves is a journey.

We want our children to be able to experience the same journey that we traveled.  However, with the average tuition, room and board at over $22,000 per year (and rising!), with public universities increasing tuition by 27% per year, with The University of California system increasing tuition by over 70% in just over 7 years, and with median family income stuck in neutral, how can we pay for our children to go to college?  We have learned the hard way that the system of accumulating student debt is not sustainable.  We do not want to burden our children with the same debts that we face today.

What is the solution?  How can we expect to send our children to college?  Some have simply said that they won’t.  The new mantra is that “college isn’t for everyone.”  Yet, as Catholics, we have come to value the role that universities play in the development of the whole human person, the critical role this education has in allowing each of us to move toward our full potential as a person.  The solution is not slashing university budgets and increasing tuition, as many states have started doing.  The solution is not to dramatically cut federal student loan programs and Pell grants.

Part of the solution is for our federal and state governments to reinvest in our public universities; while many private universities have increased spending on students, public universities have spent less.  Public universities increase tuition, in part, because of decreased taxpayer support.  This is not entirely the fault of government; blame also falls on citizens who have neglected our university systems in order to have short-term benefits like reduced tax rates (see prop 13 in California as a prime example).

Another critical part of the solution is for universities to cut back on administrative costs.  As dollars spent on students decrease, the cost of administrative salaries (and administration in general), has increased substantially.  Instead of reinvesting increased tuition into student education, higher administrative costs are absorbing that new revenue.  It is one thing to increase tuition to reinvest this money into educating students, it is another to pay administrative costs with students not seeing much of the increase in tuition going to them.

Obviously these two suggestions do not solve the problem of absurdly high tuition rates.  It will take a combination of a change in the public’s ethos, a strong government push to re-fund our struggling institutions, and a change within the institutions themselves in how they spend their resources for America to really begin to tackle this serious problem and ensure affordable access to a college education.  On the other hand, perhaps the only real solution is to require by law that our elected officials only send their children to public universities.  Perhaps this will get them to stop sleeping on their jobs and get busy trying to find and implement real solutions!

Daniel Petri is a PhD student in Politics at Catholic University and a graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies.