Guest post from Charles Terrano
$1,004,595,916,213.00. That’s a pretty staggering number and no, that’s not the current national deficit. It’s actually the total amount of student loan debt as of the time of this writing. One trillion dollars. That is nearly 200 billion dollars more than the total amount of outstanding credit card debt in America. Two-thirds of students graduate with student loans and they carry an average of $25,000 in debt. With this record level of debt students are graduating into the worst job market since the Great Depression. It should be no surprise than that student loan default rates have spiked dramatically, jumping to a record 8.8% as of 2010.
Defaulting on student loan debt can hurt you more than defaulting on other types of debt like credit cards because student loan debt is the hardest type of debt to get out from under. It is the only debt type that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Can’t find a job? Lost your job? Became sick of disabled? Sorry, there’s no bankruptcy option to get away from that crushing debt…. Hope you enjoy having your pay garnished and your bank accounts levied. As Elizabeth Warren said: “Student-loan debt collectors have power that would make a mobster envious.” In short, we have record student loan debt, record student unemployment, and record student loan defaults.
Oh, and just to make the debt issue even worse…. According to an ACT study only 46% of students who start college wind up graduating with a degree. Cost is cited as the number one reason why so few graduate. But of course even if you don’t get a degree you still have to pay those student loans!
To top it off we also have an issue of unequal access. According to the National Center for Education Statistics among those who graduated high school the college enrollment rate from low-income families was 55%, 29 percentage points lower than the rate of high school completers from high-income families (84%). With the latest spending (austerity) bill making it harder to qualify for needs-based Pell Grants – you can only get the full grant if your highest annual income was $23k or less, reduced from $30k and the maximum amount of time you are allowed to receive grants has been reduced as well - higher education becomes prohibitively expensive for a huge number of people.
Oh yes, and let us not forget that in the last 30 years the average cost of higher education has risen twice as fast as inflation. So let’s see, record costs, record defaults, record cost increases, unequal access, reductions in aid programs, pathetic graduation rates…. to call this a system in crisis would be an understatement. As is typical the ones who are hurt the most are the ones who can least afford it; the ones who are most vulnerable. It is the students who suffer while the schools make money hand over fist. According to the Office of Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), one of the loudest voices in Congress against the for-profit school system, the for-profit schools enjoy a profit margin of 30-40%, that makes the for-profit college industry one of the most profitable industries in the country! As is the norm for our market-driven capitalist system the industry makes money without caring about the human cost of their practices.
As Socialists we reject the debt driven higher education system that harms the poor while further enriching the wealthy. We call for tuition free higher-education for all. Higher education should be funded 100% by tax revenue ensuring that every single American who wants to go on to college can without concern about cost or debt. If a student is smart enough to get into Harvard and that’s where they want to go they should be able to do just that irrespective of whether that person is the child of a multi-billion dollar CEO or a welfare recipient from the inner city. Intelligence, not money, should be the sole determining factor for what colleges and universities a student can go to.
A system of public higher education can work quite well. We know this because there are several countries that currently do offer 100% tuition free higher education. As an example Denmark offers education straight through the graduate level 100% free to anyone who a Denmark Citizen, permanent resident, or from anywhere in the EU or Switzerland. Denmark even goes one step further, a student will receive a stipend, called SU, from the government to cover cost of living while they are in school. Denmark believes that paying students while they are in school is important to ensure that the students can focus on their studies as opposed to trying to pay the rent. Most importantly, free education does not mean substandard education. Denmark ranks fifth in the world overall for quality of higher education and several of its universities rank among the world’s best.
Free high quality education for all plus a stipend for living expenses, this is a model that we need to emulate here in America. This would allow everybody true equal access to higher education. This would allow students to focus on their studies without having to worry about how they are going to pay for it. This will allow students to go to whatever school they qualify for, not just whatever school they can afford. This will allow students to get out from under the onerous burden of student loan debt. This will ultimately help the entire country. We call upon our government to end the unjust debt-driven higher education system and replace it with a fair 100% tuition free system funded by tax dollars. People are the most precious resource that we as a country possess. We should invest in those people; not exploit them.
(Sorry some of the text looks kind of highlighted-looking. I can't figure out how to make that go away. --JB)