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What future with student debt?

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AUGUST 09, 2022

How much money would it take for you to have your body covered by leeches? I didn’t think I’d ever ask myself that question but the answer came to me unexpectedly as I binged YouTube: $500. That’s how much money it took to convince a comedian at CollegeHumor, Grant O’Brien, to cover his body with leeches in order to pay off $500 worth of his student loans.

Three years ago, CollegeHumor launched its series Total Forgiveness challenging two comedians to truly insane tasks in order to win money to pay off their even more insane student loans. But maybe what’s most insane about the student loan debt crisis in the United States is how normal it has become.

Student loan debt in the United States today has reached over 1.7 trillion dollars, and that number is just set to rise. In fact, at our current pace, student loan debt could top 3 trillion dollars by 2035. Hidden behind these harrowing numbers are the qualms of skipped meals, unpaid bills and blighted futures.

There are over 8 million borrowers over the age of 55 who still hold student loan debt. For many, paying off that debt within their lifetimes has become a pipe dream and they instead have to focus on making ends meet month to month. 

One couple has paid off $140,000 dollars of student loan debt and still has to pay off another $130,000 — even though the loans they started with amounted to just $54,000 dollars.

How do you even plan for the future in conditions like this? Students and graduates who have such massive levels of debt feel trapped, with no way out. Many even consider suicide one study found that 1 in 14 student borrowers experience suicidal ideation because of the financial burden of their student loans. This is something that, as one commentator said, “cannot be therapized away.”

 But student loan debt is just one side of the crisis. Even if all student loan debt were canceled today, one study estimated that we would return to our current levels of student debt again by 2035 — the consequence of years of attacks on public education and rising tuition across the board. 

Average tuition rates in the United States have risen by 180% since 1980. Much of this tuition rate increase is due to a falloff in state and federal funding for public education; public funding for education has decreased by 25% since the late 1980s, and the only way for many universities to make up budget shortfalls has been to raise tuition for students.

At the same time, it seems many universities are devoting less and less funding to student services. At UC Berkeley, for example, library services for the upcoming fall 2022 semester are being slashed, with the majority of libraries having fewer hours, reduced services and staffing cuts. This reduction in library funding has come even as UC Berkeley has dramatically increased the number of administrative staff; there are almost as many high-level staff today as there are full-time faculty.

What are the priorities of an education system that values having high-ranking bureaucrats and financial advisors rather than more teaching faculty or library staff? It doesn’t seem to be to provide a high-quality and low-cost education. 

Student debt is a chain around students’ necks, but the rock dragging that chain down is the economic stagnation we face. The U.S. economy seems likely to head into a recession soon.

Graduating into a recession has long-term scarring effects on the future employability of students and their earnings ability. If paying student loan debt back is already a burden, what is it like to pay back student loan debt without a job? 

But it’s not just a recession that we have to worry about now either. The financial benefit of college (measured by the average amount of money that a person with a bachelor’s degree makes compared to someone without a bachelor’s degree), which increased rapidly through the 1980s, has experienced a massive slowdown in growth since the late ’90s. While a college degree is still incredibly valuable, its popularity is causing it to shift from an above-and-beyond professional achievement to just another step necessary to achieve an equal footing on the playing field.

We have to ask ourselves what individual financial independence means in a world dominated by debt and deteriorating economic conditions. Getting a college education used to be considered the path to a secure future. But that pathway is increasingly rocky. 

The certainty of a good future that used to come with a college education seems more and more like an illusion. And there is no easy or individual way out of this crisis.

If we want to have a secure and livable future for ourselves, we’ll need to fight for it collectively. Our futures are being beaten, compromised and destroyed by the weight of debt and an uncertain economic future. Yet, we can have a different world if we fight for it.

Student loan debt and climbing costs of education can be ended if we mobilize ourselves in the streets to demand an education system organized in the interests of education and not for profit.

Aidan Byrne-Sarno is a rising senior and member of Speak Out Now at UC Berkeley.

AUGUST 09, 2022