College football, alumni circles, middle class, and Greek organizations, all cultural aspects of life. As Americans struggle with student loans, we look at their purpose, impact, and reality – that the popular road to a degree is unsustainable.
About 44 million students owe a combined approximately $1.5 trillion in Federal student loan debt and an additional $119 billion from non-backed government sources. That is around $33,000 for the average person with debt. But it gets higher for certain demographics as we will see. Both the number of Americans and the loan debt has risen exponentially, with specific years, administrations, and events, serving as catalysts.
Albert was about to be famous. He would become the among the first and largest living creature, to be launched into space. The year is 1948 and the United States of America and among other nations, including Russia in an intense space race to land on the moon. Albert, a rhesus monkey, did not survive the experiment, and it wouldn’t be the last attempt to test life outside the stratosphere over the next decade. In 1957 Russia (then, the Soviet Union) sent Sputnik into orbit, the world’s first artificial satellite, about the size of a beach ball, causing a frenzy in the US space community. At the center of the race was power, prestige, and global leadership in the era after the second World War. The tone of the situation was grave, and movements were put in place to implement a strategy to overtake the now strong Soviet mission into space. For victory, there would be a new formation, a new emphasis on science and technology. There would be a system in place and this system would require a dedicated army. America needed soldiers that would ensure we were first to the moon. How would these soldiers be funded in their mission to the moon? A year later in 1958, the National Defense Education Act was passed. Student loans, especially in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics were going to take America to the moon. It would also lead and develop the United States and the world into a scientific power, helping the transition from industrial to the current technology driven economies. The transition included the National Aeronautical Space Administration. On June 29, 1958 NASA was born and the transition from industrial to digital was set in place.
College campuses are beautiful and rich, with design and culture. The Ivy League and several highly regarded schools boast endowments of over $1 billion. From Harvard, America’s first institution of higher learning, established in 1636 to the University of Virginia, higher education campuses have a prestige that is a foundation for many of our most vital industries. Yet, the college of university was initially for the wealthy. Through the middle of the 20th Century, that would begin to change.
While there were a few private student loan programs in place, it wasn’t until the World War II era, that government, through the United States Army installed the G.I. Bill in 1944. As the world became more complex, desegregation, women increasing in the workforce, new criteria were set in place to ensure, that employees were fit for certain jobs. College enrollment went up as the college degree became more common. On November 8, The Higher Education Act of 1965 was established, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, at his alma mater, Texas State University (then Southwest Texas State College). What was initially for technology, science, and space, was now open for all students.
Progress has no doubt been made; even as economic conditions remain volatile. Similar to the housing loss due to segregation, student loan debt has and will continue to put many Americans behind for generations to come. That includes black Americans, which, has accrued significantly more student loan debt since the early 1990s, compared to other ethnicity. In 1969, America finally landed on the moon, roughly a decade after a massive investment in education. Today we are still riding on the success of the science and technology boon. Much of technology we use today including camera phones, CAT scans, LEDs, freeze dried foods and even Air Jordan’s are here because of aerospace engineering and NASA. GPS, satellite radio and Tv, thanks NASA. Technology billionaires and winners of the economy were jump started by the rise in technology and engineering. It has altered and resulted in the death of industrialization, supplanted with the digital economy. But were massive student loans and its adjustments worth it, even if scientific advancement was inevitable? With a full picture, few would argue against the fruit of investment in student loans and tech. Yet, the economics of it all, wage gap and debt, is proving to be unsustainable, at least for many Americans. The COVID pandemic is putting money and education into perspective. Though, we may have already seen the last of what has been education, it is improbable that tech would diminish in any way.
In the end we have the freedom to make decisions, to dive into debt or find other ways. The other ways, in part due to student loan debt, are becoming tougher to access. A solid education will enable students to make smarter decisions. We are all learning. We need college, we need education and we need training for careers. That may mean students will continue to benefit from financial aid programs. But it must be done in a practical and affordable way. A more informed public will make better decisions that can be beneficial as they enter and depart college campuses. As we matriculate through life which may include higher education, one lesson has to ingrained in our higher educated minds. If it takes many more years to pay off student loan debt than it took to accumulate, then we have failed a foundational lesson student, as educators and as a nation.
- The Brookings Institution – Black-white disparity in student loan debt more than triples after graduation – October 20, 2016 https://www.brookings.edu/research/black-white-disparity-in-student-loan-debt-more-than-triples-after-graduation/
- US House of Representatives – National Defense In Education Act https://history.house.gov/HouseRecord/Detail/15032436195
- California Institute of Technology – Jet Propulstion Laboratory https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/infographics/infographic.view.php?id=11358
- Time Magazine – How The Student Debt Complex Is Crushing The Next Generation of Americans – October 29, 2019 https://time.com/5712504/student-debt-complex-harms-america/