Student Debt (Not Avocado Toast) is Breaking the Economy

How Student Loans Are Bankrupting America’s Future

By: Sarah Smith, Congressional Candidate (WA-09)

College education is a cornerstone of the American Dream. We’ve been told it’s THE cornerstone. But today, college degrees are inaccessible to almost everyone but the wealthiest in society. So many of us choose to bury ourselves in insurmountable debt in the hope that higher education will put us on the path to achievement. Yet after graduation, we are met with stagnant wages, entry level jobs (or more likely, unpaid internships), and no healthcare benefits.

The system as it stands now is broken. Not broken in the typical political sense that “It doesn’t generate money.” Quite the opposite. Institutions are turning plenty of profit off of indebting the next generation. No, the way higher education is broken is much more dangerous. Instead of a ladder for advancement, college has become an obstacle course of shattered glass. Its sharp edges slice our hands when we try to hold on to it. Its uphill climb splinters communities and cuts off young potential.

This failed system hurts the entire country. In 2015, an Edwards Jones survey found that 83% of American families can’t afford college. And costs are only rising. The Class of 2016 graduated with student debt that hovers around $37,000/year, a 6% increase from last year! That’s a level of debt that wouldn’t have entered a college student’s’ worst nightmares 30 years ago.

Economist graphic, college costs outpace inflation:

As academic factories churn out more expensive degrees at rates higher than inflation, young people are turning to predatory student loan companies. We’ve been told there’s no other choice, and that these transcripts are the tickets to our futures. We get stuck in an unaffordable cycle of going to school to lift ourselves up, diving into debt to graduate, and emerging on the other side (cash-strapped) to a world of jobs that won’t pay us.

That series of unfortunate events has created a ten year period where graduates cannot participate in the economy. We can’t buy houses or cars, or save for down payments, or afford to have families. Yet millionaire moguls have the audacity to tell us that millennials are killing the housing market because we buy too much avocado toast! Are you KIDDING me?

$College > $Avocado Toast — It’s simple math.

The American Dream we’ve been told to expect is getting a degree, getting a great job, and starting a great life. Maybe that dream was alive and well decades ago, but now it feels out of reach no matter how hard you study, no matter how hard you work. Higher education, has been rigged against every American who wasn’t born into wealth. So we grow up being told we can do anything, are shown that we can’t, and then blamed for falling short of society’s expectations. This double-talk isn’t just dangerous for young people today, it’s dangerous for an entire society that will lack enough good jobs and skilled labor to succeed in a 21st century economy.

I could go on about the financial impacts of the $1.44 trillion student loan crisis forever. I could write a whole essay on how the economy is poised to crash if we ignore this bubble, how freezing out a whole generation from buying homes will cause another housing recession, or how the inability to buy things is going to bring the economy to a grinding halt. But it’s more than just money to us. It’s so much more than dollars and cents to millennials, to Gens X and Y, and to our children.

Education is how we lift ourselves out of poverty. Education is a how we understand the world, and our place in it. Education is how we grow good citizens. Education is how displaced workers can take advantage of new industries. Everybody in this nation has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — and education is key to all three. What is a life where you’re crushed with debt? Liberty when your life choices are shackled by loans? The pursuit of happiness when students have to follow a rent check instead of their dreams?

We are telling people they only deserve these rights if they can afford them or if their families paid enough money to have them. Essentially forbidding access to education for poor families disproportionately affects communities of color, hands down. It keeps an entire class of people stuck at the bottom, without the bootstraps (or the boots) to seek something better.

That is not the country I believe in. We are a nation that lifts its lamp beside the golden door, that embraces the poor and tempest-tossed, that provides opportunity for all people under the big blue sky to achieve greatness. When we fail to provide access to higher education to people, we fail to live up to the country we are meant to be.

The College for All Act isn’t an act that “gives away stuff” to people, it’s an Act that embraces the vision of our nation, and what we truly are at our core. We are a country where all people should have access to education, not just the privileged few. All people should be able to better themselves without entering into the working world burdened with mounting debt. All people should have the opportunity to go to college or technical schools to explore new careers and embrace new skills.

This isn’t a “progressive” Act, College for All is a human Act. It is an American Act. The very gateway to the American Dream begins with education. College for All opens that gateway just as the Statue of Liberty demands we do. It allows all people, regardless of color or income or neighborhood, to achieve this dream that we all hold so dear. I support the College for All Act because everybody on the block of townhomes outside my window deserves the opportunity to educate themselves, to better themselves, and to strive for the American Dream.

Sarah Smith is a Congressional Candidate in Washington’s 9th District, an advocate for educational accessibility, and a current prisoner of student debt.