The next pandemic: Student loan debt crisis

Why the national debt now stands at over $22 trillion dollars the student loan debt that has been amassed is over $1 trillion dollars on its own. While some think it seems trivial to compare the two and that it would be easy for the federal government to simply absorb another trillion dollars, it would be far more disastrous then can be imagined. It wouldn’t be the amount of debt that would be added but the second and third order effects it would have on the population’s mentality as well as those who govern. The national treasury isn’t simply a piggy bank that be emptied timed and again without being refilled. Like everything else in life, there is a limit. One that we passed tens of trillions of dollars ago.

                One of the most important factors that is constantly overlooked in the arguments over student loan debt is the use of the language around it. What politicians are saying and what they are articulating are two completely different things. We’ve all heard the saying from many presidential hopefuls, “I will work in my first 100 days in office to have legislation passed that will eliminate student debt!” This phrase is used consistently and with little to no variations. The word to focus on in this phrase is, “eliminate.” Why is this word in particular important? Because it is used for what it implies as opposed to what it actually means. To those who agree with the statement, and to most people in the country in general, this simply means the government will forgive your debt. If the true meaning of the word was applied, then it would be partially true. In order to actually, “eliminate,” the debt, the government would have to cancel the ability of colleges and those who issued the loans to collect on them. In doing so, a trillion dollar hole would open up and consume universities and business left and right. This would not make the debt disappear it would only shift the burden to those who provide a service. After which, they would have no services to provide.

                The reality of it all is that the private debt would simply be added to the national debt for everyone to share. This of course means that not only would that the majority would have to share in the debt of the minority, it also means that their student loan payments would come in the form of taxes. They will pay them their entire lives as opposed to a few years and a greater economic strain would be placed on our already burdened government funded organizations, services and systems in this time of deficit spending.

                This is indeed a national crisis. One that we will be dealing with for many decades to come. When the time comes for investigations and oversight committees, someone will get the blame for this ridiculous situation we find ourselves in. Who is to blame for this bloated, inefficient and debt creating monstrosity. Everyone. Society has been geared towards college from the very beginning of the 20th century. Originally it was intended to be a place of higher education and study for a few, not everyone. Their courses and colleges of study were intended for a specialized academic, economic and medical higher learning.  Those who intended were there for specific education and had a profession in mind that required it. The vast majority of society did not require such specialized education to function or to make a living. This is still true today. With trade schools, apprenticeships and other forms of specialized training and education that enable well payed employment with plenty of opportunity for growth and upward mobility. All without an expensive four year degree that collects more dust then those who earned it money.

                We send our children to schools that barely teach anything worthwhile anymore, let alone essential life skills. When they’ve made it through high school we tell them at 18 they must make up their mind on what they want to be for the rest of their lives. All the while insistently yelling at them that they must go to college or they’ll never make it in the world. Again and again parents, teachers and guidance counselors tell them that the only way to get ahead is to go to college. We’ve seen what this had led to. Whether the debt is, “eliminated,” this time or not the cycle will continue. If we really wanted to further education and help our children we’d stop telling them that they have to decide once and for all what they want to be before they ever go out into the world. Better yet still we’d stop telling them only one option makes their life worthwhile. Worst of all if we do decide to pay off their debts, what have we done besides tell them that can do whatever they want and that they don’t have to worry about the consequences. At the end of the day they decided on their own to attend these universities and attained degrees that don’t translate to jobs in the real world. Instead of telling them to expect a job making over a hundred thousand dollars out of college. Let’s tell them to take responsibility for their actions and choices. Then tell them to take their time, choose wisely, that it’s alright to change their minds and that they shouldn’t expect others to step in and shoulder their burden.

I think a trillion dollars of student loans and a massive skills gap are precisely what happens to a society that actively promotes one form of education as the best course for the most people. I think the stigmas and stereotypes that keep so many people from pursuing a truly useful skill, begin with the mistaken belief that a four-year degree is somehow superior to all other forms of learning.

-Mike Rowe

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