One of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' core policy proposals is to make public colleges and universities tuition-free. This stance has gained Sanders a lot of support from younger voters, which is understandable given that seven in 10 seniors who graduated from public and nonprofit colleges in 2014 had an average student loan debt of $28,950.
Nationwide, student loan debt totals $1.2 trillion. That's the kind of money that could fix a lot of problems in this country if it were put to better use. Millions of our best and brightest are being saddled with long-term debt in their early twenties. And that debt is keeping many of them from making big-ticket purchases — housing and cars — the kind of consumer spending that drives and sustains the economy. It takes the average student-loan borrower 20 years to pay off their loan.
But despite ample evidence that this massive loan debt is crippling the buying power of young adults and hurting all of us in the process, blowback from opponents of Sanders' proposal has been considerable. A favorite tactic is to call this generation "entitled" for wanting more affordable college education. Which is profoundly unfair and inaccurate. And profoundly hypocritical.
My college tuition at the University of Missouri in 1973, the last year I attended, was around $750 a semester. I paid around $100 a month in rent. I was able to work part-time, go to school full-time, and graduate debt-free. Most of my college jobs — fast food, janitorial work, school bus driving — paid $2.50 to $4.00 an hour.
After college, I was free to travel, to work minimum-wage jobs, and to explore different life options without having to jump immediately into the rat race to start paying off some terrifying debt. Back then, that freedom to take off a couple of years (or six) to "find ourselves" after finishing our education was the norm. Now, it's called being "entitled." If that's entitled, then, yes, we do need to entitle this generation.
While it's true that many more students are attending college now than did during the baby boomer years, that doesn't explain why the average college tuition has ballooned so incredibly. Billions of dollars in state and federal money are getting poured into public higher education, yet fees keep rising and administrative costs have grown at an even faster pace.
The only people happy about this are the college presidents and top administrators (who now make the kinds of salaries once reserved for captains of industry), and the banks and loan corporations making billions of dollars on fixed-interest student loans — loans for which there is no relief except declaring bankruptcy.
This generation isn't entitled. It's getting royally screwed. As are their parents, if they are helping foot the bill.
Sanders is raising a very important issue, one that deserves consideration even after the fires of this heated political campaign die back. Whether or not "free" tuition is possible is open to debate. That we need to find a way to get the expense of a college education back to a level that doesn't cripple our economy and put our young people in hock for decades shoudn't be.