"When I was 18, my dreams were what I want to become and what I want to do. Now the only thing I'm looking for is to get by."
– 23 year old female from Ohio (National Public Radio, 8/12/12)
This new reality of a college education linked to thousands of dollars of debt is teaching young people to base their aspirations not on their dreams, but on what they can afford.
A quality college education, increasingly necessary for many jobs, is financially inaccessible for more and more students. Tuition rates at universities and community colleges have soared while government investment has decreased, leaving the burden of paying – or rather borrowing – for higher education on the shoulders of students and their families. Both corporate parties call for reforming public education by turning it over to private corporations and treating students as consumers.
However, the root of the problem is the failing system of capitalism that forces people to choose between an insecure, minimum-wage job and $20,000 of debt.
Yet students are constantly told that success ― finding a job with some benefits and stability ― requires a college education. So they are borrowing to the tune of $100 billion per year. Current student loan debt, over $1 trillion, exceeds the total credit card debt of all Americans (NPR, 4/23/12).
A Pathway to Poverty
Tuition at public universities has doubled over the past 20 years and increased 71% at community colleges (Demos, 5/3/12). All the while, median household income – about $33,000/year – has not increased in real value since about 1980.
The average college student now graduates with $20,000 in student loan debt (NY Daily News, 5/10/12), and a recent study that tracked 1.8 million borrowers shows a staggering 41% were unable to make payments on time or defaulted. Yet this does not even include private loans (US News, 3/30/11).
With the current economic crisis causing massive unemployment, many are unable to pay back their loans because they can’t find work. Students who graduated after 2009 are three times less likely to find a full-time job than those who graduated in 2006-2008, and 11% of graduates since 2009 are unemployed or not working at all (Huffington Post, 5/10/12).
Yet the lucky ones who do find full-time work are making, on average, only $27,000 per year, barely enough to pay back massive loans on top of rising health care, housing, food and energy costs. Overall, roughly 50% of recent college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed in jobs that don’t utilize their skills and knowledge obtained in college.
War and Profits over Education
Corporate politicians from both parties claim there is no money for social services. This is a lie. The truth is there is more than enough money to make higher education free for all. The Democrats and Republicans have used the economic crisis to slash funding to ordinary people while the military budget has ballooned to over $700 billion, tax subsidies to oil companies total $24 billion, and over $700 billion in bailout money was handed to the banks.
Is There a Way Out?
One million people signed on to the Student Loan Forgiveness Act, which would cap payments at 10% of your income and would allow for up to $45,000 of some loans to be “forgiven” after 10 years of payment. Though this would be a small step in the right direction, offering millions of people debt relief, it does not ultimately address the root of the problem. Student debt should not be “forgiven” – it should be canceled!
An economic system in which young people must go into debt in order to gain the education necessary to make a living is ultimately unsustainable and morally corrupt. Even when young people go into massive debt, capitalism offers them no future – except low-wage jobs with little to no benefits.
Capitalists in all countries are forcing the working class and youth to pay for the failure of their system. Fighting for the cancellation of student debt should be linked to the need for free education, health care, and living-wage green jobs. This must also be connected to fighting for a socialist transformation of society, where economic decisions are based on human and environmental needs, not maximizing profits.
History shows that only with pressure from mass movements can we fundamentally change the way society is organized. The heroic student strike in Quebec against tuition hikes is providing the example of how students, linked with unions, can tip the balance of power in favor of ordinary people and stop the tuition fee hikes. This kind of movement is necessary to not only challenge the fee-for-education system, but also to transform society to work for the 99%.