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U.S. Student Debt Crisis: College Is A Necessity — Not A Commodity

Here’s a comforting back-to-school thought: Baby Boomers are basically bankrupt. Our accumulated wealth (remember home equity?) has been mostly wiped out. And the culprits — big bad bankers — have now turned their attention to the next generation. Student loan debt recently topped more than $1 trillion– an unimaginable sum.
And if you think college kids are getting those low interest rates that bankers charge each other, think again. The good news is that, unlike us, our children won’t have to worry about getting fleeced out of their fortunes — because they won’t have any. Today’s diploma comes complete with its own back-breaking mortgage. And the first payment’s due right after graduation — whether they have a job, or not.
Congratulations on your commencement. Let me be the first to welcome you to the community of educated men and women… i.e. indentured servitude.
That’s just what America needs: Our smartest kids saddled — straight out of the gate — with the kind of crippling debt that can only zap their ability to contribute to a growing economic pie. Whose idea was this?
Certainly not the Founding Fathers.
Thomas Jefferson was a governor, congressman, secretary of state, vice president, and, of course, president of the United States. Yet when he finally got around to writing his own epitaph not one of these noteworthy accomplishments even made the cut.
Instead, Jefferson wished to be remembered simply as the author of the Declaration of Independence, and the father of the University of Virginia — a free, public college. Why? Because he believed that the only way our country could survive and prosper was under laws that were “wisely formed and honestly administered” by a citizenry educated at the “common expense of all” and without any regard to “wealth, birth, or other accidental condition or circumstance.”
Thomas Jefferson’s proudest achievement, according to the headstone he designed for himself, was founding a college where any student smart enough to earn admission could attend — regardless of means. In Jefferson’s vision of this republic, a college education was a necessity — not a commodity. He wasn’t alone.
Abraham Lincoln — with a stroke of his presidential pen – made more than 17 million acres of federal land available to states free of charge for the sole purpose of creating “land grant” colleges. You may have heard of them. They include: Cornell, MIT, Auburn, Rutgers, Purdue, Penn State, Ohio State, Clemson, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma — just to name a few.
Up until the 1980s, the University of California — one of the best land grant colleges in the country — was free of charge. Unfortunately, America got tired of having the most educated citizens in the world. So we abandoned the old system of paying for public colleges with public funds and then holding those colleges accountable for their expenditures and outcomes. Instead, we adopted the current system where banks give loans to folks who can’t afford them in order to underwrite unrestrained increases in the costs of whatever those poor people are buying — in this case, higher education.
How’s that approach working out for you?
America built a 20th century economic juggernaut on the backs of land grant colleges, the G.I. Bill, and an unshakable belief in free, public education as a right of citizenship. But that was in a previous century, when we bought stuff with pay increases instead of payday loans.
Let’s face it. Anybody with an ounce of common sense knows that what was true for Thomas Jefferson is even truer today. College education in the United States of America must never be a function of “wealth, birth, or other accidental condition or circumstance.”
And yet, for the past 30 years, on so many levels, my generation has been swindled. Our kids are next. And we should be hopping mad at today’s denizens of Washington DC who spend all their time draining cocktails on K Street courtesy of unscrupulous money lenders, instead of heeding the words etched in stone on nearby pedestals where Lincoln still sits and Jefferson still stands.

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