In The First Turning, I have a chapter that discusses Millennials—an incredibly dynamic, socially engaged, solution-driven population that, at approximately 80 million strong, also happens to be the biggest age cohort in American history.
With this fact, I don’t think I have to state the obvious but I will anyway: this generation is critical to our success as a nation, both present and future.
Which is why I find the financial landscape of higher education so troubling. Obviously I’m not alone in my feelings—the topic recently has been documented in movies and chronicled in books, it’s been highlighted in every major national news sources and argued in our government. By now it is no secret that young Americans carry more than a trillion dollars in student loan debt, an amount second only to mortgage debt in the U.S. We all know what happened in that arena and, lest we believe that the housing market is in full recovery, we need only to look at how the student loan debt is affecting the ability of 20- and 30-somethings to purchase homes. A recent article in The New York Times references former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers as having said that student loan debt is “taking the life out of the housing recovery.”
The same article cites Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz as saying that this rising debt is “‘an educational crisis’ that is ‘affecting our potential future growth.’” Indeed, how can we expect our nation to grow when we are financially crippling our future leaders and supporters. A report published by Debt & Society titled “Borrowing Against the Future: The Hidden Costs of Financing U.S. Higher Education” explores various phenomena that have contributed to the large-scale issues plaguing our young professionals. The report, which explores issues across three main financial sectors—student loan markets, municipal bond markets, and equity investors—states that the financing costs per currently enrolled student increased by 53 percent in real terms between 2002 and 2012. Tellingly during this time, though, all higher education costs and instructional costs have remained fairly consistent, with the spikes occurring across student loan interest, interest for institutional debts, and, most notably, for-profit college company profits.
As a result of these insidiously staggering costs, students are feeling demoralized and unsure of what to do or where to turn. They’re questioning whether college is worth it but wondering what place they’ll have in the job market if they don’t attend.
How can we call on this generation to be the bearers of promise for our country when we as a nation are leaving them with empty promises? As we look to emerge from this time of crisis, we have to consider what we can do now to empower those who hold our future in their hands.
Earlier this month, President Obama signed an executive order to expand the reach of the cap that allows for student loan payments to be maxed at 10 percent of an individual’s monthly income. An expansion of a 2010 law designed to correlate loan payments to income, this order seeks to make educational costs more manageable for students. Though it’s a small step, it’s a smart one—and it’s one we need to build upon.
The First Turning.
If you’re interested in learning more about this issue, two great and recent resources include Suzanne Mettler’s new book, Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream and the new documentary film “Ivory Tower” by Andrew Rossi.