Unlike his friend Anna, Matt is no superstar. He is a good student, earning a mix of A's and B's. He works a part-time gig at a local Mexican restaurant to help his single mother out with the bills. Luckily for Matt, he has been accepted into three of the five universities he applied to. However, no scholarship offers come, and even with some financial aid, he will have to take out loans. 15 years after his medical school graduation, Matt is still over $100,000 in debt.
I will end the story with one last detail: Anna and Matt end up attending the same undergraduate college. We love the Anna story. She shows us that so much can be achieved by ambitious students and young people. She is a trailblazer and we all rightly praise her. Unfortunately, she is also a distraction from the experience of most students if we focus on her too heavily.
We don't quite enjoy the Matt story in the same way. He seems to represent a gap or contradiction in our system. Hard-working people with good character will catch breaks and make it with a good attitude, right? Maybe. No individual person or decision caused Matt to incur so much debt. He simply walked through the doors he was told signaled future success. Unfortunately, though, the signs on those doors were crafted by PR firms on behalf of elite universities.
I just graduated from the University of Southern California. Luckily for me, I was able to graduate free from worries of debt. However, I am all too aware that this is not the case for most of my former classmates. At least half of my American friends who attend or attended universities exit with student debt.
A glass-half-full kind of person may retort: "But surely this debt is overwhelmingly held by those mere months or a few years out of college". Most people with student loans cannot expect, based on current statistics, to have fully paid them off until their 30s and 40s.
Millions of middle-aged and senior Americans still have student debt as well. We can only expect this proportion to rise, since the effects of astronomical tuition increases in recent years have not yet been reflected across all age groups.
This article by the Washington Post does a wonderful job of outlining the negative consequences of student debt about which we should all be worried: lower home ownership, less marriage, fewer small businesses, and preventing retirement savings among those still in debt.
A college diploma is now worth what a high school diploma was worth two decades ago, and we should treat it like the essential good that it is for millions of young people. This means, at a minimum, abolishing student debt, and ideally, funding public universities entirely with public funds, so all qualified students have an opportunity, at the very least, for a high-quality but affordable post-secondary education. Unfortunately, other than from a few marginal voices in the public sphere, I hear very little of this conversation.
One day, someone will be shocked to learn that a university education in the United States was once a luxury that drove people into crippling debt, rather than a basic guarantee from a society that values widespread access to advanced education. I hope that day comes soon, for the sake of everyone burdened by student debt.