If we understood the impact of higher education, student debt wouldn’t exist
When the Biden-Harris student loan debt relief package was announced on August 24, with a loan forgiveness plan affecting 43 million Americans, it was guaranteed to elicit heated reactions. However, whether one supports or opposes the Biden-Harris plan, the real scandal of this indebtedness is that America cannot make up its mind whether it wants educated citizens, even in the age of theories of creeping plot. The founders of the nation, it should be noted, had no such ambiguity.
In the book “Founders and the Idea of a National University”, political scientist George Thomas follows the lobbying efforts of George Washington, James Madison, John Adams, Noah Webster and Benjamin Rush to create a national university. These founders argued that a national institution of higher learning would eliminate sectoral differences, foster unity, and empower citizens to reflect thoughtfully and critically about themselves, the nation, and the world.
Such an institution could educate for the needs of industry. But of equal importance, it could help students distinguish between fact and fiction, develop character and public virtue, and gain skills in reasoned debate and building compromise. Ultimately, the university would forge a distinctive American spirit. After the Civil War, three presidents – Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes and James Garfield – revived the concept for the same reasons.
The founders realized that creating a democratic republic required more than a new constitution. A new breed of citizens was needed. Turns out they were right. On average, a university education not only allows graduates to better support their families; it helps them develop more gifts to share. According to the Lumina Foundation, college graduates are 2.3 times more likely to volunteer, with a monetary value 4.1 times higher than those who finish high school.
Philanthropic giving by university graduates is also 3.5 times greater and they make 3.4 times more cash donations to charity, with total charitable contributions 4.7 times greater. While 52% of high school graduates vote in presidential elections, 75% of college graduates do. University graduates are also much less likely to become a burden on society. They are less dependent on government programs, such as housing subsidies, unemployment benefits, Medicaid and other forms of public assistance, and are five times less likely to serve time in prison. Cumulatively, that means a college education costs the government $82,000 less over a lifetime, while simultaneously contributing $273,000 more in taxes, the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation found.
America has always had a complicated relationship with higher education. Journalist Will Bunch provides the latest analysis in his new book, “After the Ivory Tower Falls.” It begins with the GI Bill’s transformation of higher education and follows the tortured path that brings us to the student debt crisis and the nation’s $1.7 trillion student debt that is financially crippling multiple generations. and hurts some of the most vulnerable. A third of 25-34 year olds and almost a quarter of 18-24 and 35-49 year olds have debt they may never repay, largely due to predatory loan servicers. Women make up 58% of those in debt, and minorities and women have the highest monthly payments on average.
Universities have made huge mistakes since the 1960s. But the debt crisis is ultimately about American society’s inability to decide whether it really wants an educated population or not. It’s time to take some of the college debt off the backs of citizens who have sacrificed for an education, and many Americans agree. After all, as an investment, it’s a no-brainer. Graduates will give back to society much more than they are forgiven.