Editorials, Opinion

Student debt is a generational burden

The closer we get the midterm elections, the more debate we hear about student loan forgiveness. President Biden campaigned on tackling the student debt crisis, but he hasn’t done more than continue to extend the loan freeze started under Trump at the beginning of the pandemic. Prior to Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked draft opinion, it was thought Biden and Democrats would have to do more than pay lip service to student debt forgiveness in order to mobilize young and progressive voters.

That may no longer be the case, but Biden and Democrats should still make an effort to reduce outstanding student debt, even if they don’t pursue total forgiveness.

One of the primary arguments against even partial forgiveness is the “I paid mine, so you have to pay yours no matter what.” That’s a terribly selfish argument. Isn’t the goal of society to consistently make things better for the next generation? Insisting that college graduates bear the burden of thousands of dollars of debt makes things worse, not better.

Once upon a time, Baby Boomers, raised in the economic boom of post-World War II, saw a bright future for their children. So they encouraged their kids, Gen Xers, to go to college — to become the next generation of innovators and leaders. So they did. And the ones who did saw their economic forecasts skyrocket compared to their high-school-diploma-only counterparts. While high school graduates went on to work blue collar and service jobs, college graduates were making bank in white collar positions — for a while, at least.

When Gen X grew up and gave birth to the Millennials, the Gen Xers told Millennials — from the cradle to the day of high school graduation — that going to college was the only way they could make anything of themselves. Or they’d spend the rest of their lives flipping burgers.

Then, with a generation and a half of college degree holders in the workforce, Zillennials (those  kids born between 1993 and 1998 who aren’t quite Millennials but not quite Gen Z,  yet were still raised on the college-at-all-costs ethos) started to graduate college and look for jobs. Only now, the job market was so saturated with bachelor’s degrees that now you needed a master’s just to stand out in a sea of applicants all vying for the same entry-level position.

According to Investopedia, the youngest of the Baby Boomers and the oldest of the Gen Xers (ages 50 to 61) still account for $281 billion in outstanding debt. Younger Gen Xers and older Millennials (ages 35 to 49) hold $622 billion in student loans. The remaining Millennials (25 to 34) have about $500 billion in student debt.

You can easily see, based on those numbers, how intense generational pressure to go to college and the astronomical rise in tuition for four-year public institutions (which has doubled in the last 30 years, according to the College Board, and private university tuition is triple a public university’s) led to a national student debt crisis. It’s also why we see such a hard push toward vocational schools for Gen Zers: While previous generations were focused on higher education, traditional trades fell by the wayside. Now, the scarcity of tradesmen and the abundance of college grads makes a vocational certificate worth more than a diploma in today’s job market.

The greatest irony of the conversation surrounding student loan forgiveness is that it is older Baby Boomers (like most of Congress) who pushed younger generations to earn that college degree — the debt of which is now degrading credit scores, limiting buying power, making it harder to start families and businesses and preventing the accumulation of generational wealth — are the very same people who look down at borrowers now and say, “You were stupid enough to take out the loans. Now you have to pay them back.”

What they’re actually saying is, “You were stupid enough to listen to us, and now you have to pay for it — literally and figuratively.”