Dave D'Amico / Essay

A Few Thoughts on College Debt During this Fucked Up Election Season

From a young age, most American students are taught that a four-year degree is the best endgame for their vocational future. There are graphs plastered on every corner of most public high schools showing the same statistic: if you don’t go to college, you aren’t going to make any money. Many lessons taught at the secondary level are given with the caveat that “you won’t make it a day in college if you can’t get this right.”

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Although the American job market has become extremely competitive, and holding a degree statistically results in an easier time finding a career, the process has become dogmatic, which has provided colleges and universities ample cause to inflate their tuition costs at appalling rates. Meanwhile, median household incomes have remained almost stagnant for the better part of two decades. Couple that with the multitudes of neglected blue-collar industries that the U.S. has a hard time finding workers for, and the result is a shortsighted educational system which is a key component in the decline of the middle class. A skewed proportion of American students are being sent to college because of older generation’s dated misconceptions. This is throwing the economy even more out of balance and disillusioning an entire wave of young adults. If that’s not enough, the older generation blames all of the nation’s current problems on ‘millennial laziness’ and downplays the pressure of the perilous situation they’ve left us in.

The United States currently has one of the world’s most revered platforms for higher education. According to Project Atlas, there are currently 974,926 international students studying in the U.S., while only 304,467 Americans are enrolled in overseas institutions. Although they hold a lot of prestige, these American colleges are some of the most expensive to attend—in 25 years, average tuition costs have increased significantly, quadrupling the standard inflation rate. The aftermath of these price spikes has been severe: MarketWatch’s national student loan debt clock puts the total past $1.3 trillion. The investment required for a household to send a child to college is so tremendous that it’s unrealistic to assume that everyone can and should go past high school. Despite the multitude of grants and scholarships available to currently enrolled students, the average debt past graduation hovers around the six-digit range. With this in mind, it is literally not worth sending some kids who didn’t enjoy school or have any attachment to a degree program into higher education.

Firstly, a degree will not turn you into something you’re not; you come to college lazy, chances are you’re not going to leave a utilitarian intellectual, unless a mid-life crisis comes very early on. The last few years have also seen a rapidly growing resentment of young people who go into the blue-collar workforce. To many young Americans, work comes more naturally than education. This is not something that should be demonized. Aspiring artists also fall victim to the trap of pursuing a degree that merely tacks on a liberal-arts education to conventional training that could be received in a more cost-effective way. In academia, many institutions bank on a certain percentage of freshman students not staying until their sophomore year. The main justification for this idea of ‘trimming the fat’ comes from the assumption that millennials are afraid of hard work and are too self-invested to succeed.

This is presumptuous and condescending.

In reality, it is the collateral damage of a doctrine that causes families to feel insecure if they don’t raise children that can’t afford or won’t succeed in the higher education environment. Meanwhile, the United States is sorely lacking utility workers, skilled craftspeople, foresters, and mechanics.

While all this remains unaddressed, so too does the wage fissure between top-earners and median income workers in the United States, which we all know has reached unprecedented highs. The average American CEO makes 475 times as much annually as their workers’ mean income, says Robert Reich. Prospective administrations all but promise to make it worse and compare stifling it to the death of the free market and a launch into a complete welfare state.

Any young American who speaks about about these massive inequalities is met with similar rebukes: they’re lazy, entitled brats looking for handouts. We’ve become the scapegoats. We’re the reason why change is impossible. Is that true? Why can’t we end the stigma that not going to college condemns a young American to failure, because we’re perpetuating an uneducated populace? Come on, man. Ridiculous.

What’s stopping us from ending the massive debts incurred from a college degree? Nobody in this debate is asking for a state where they don’t have to work for anything, and anyone who follows that logic is purposely illegitimizing our right to be angry. We need to stop stringing out the aspirations of the new American generation, and we need to stop this unsustainable system that only serves to bleed the average household dry. We have to start actually thinking about where we commit our livelihoods, and how best to approach the question of education.

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