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Soundbites Won’t Solve the Student Loan Crisis

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
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Student loan debt once again hit its highest mark this year. According to the latest statistics, more than 44 million Americans have student loan debt, meaning about one-sixth of Americans 18 years or older have student loan debt. All told, Americans owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loans. 

This is a huge problem—and one that’s been at the forefront of public debate over the last several years, as costs and subsequent debt levels have continued to increase. 

Democratic presidential candidates have offered ludicrous “solutions” like free college for all or promises that the government will pay off all student loan debt. Not only are these ideas infeasible and would bankrupt our country, but, like most soundbites we’ve heard so far on the campaign trail, they do little to address the root problem facing higher education—and the way our country views higher education.

We tell our students that college is the only way to achieve the American Dream. We are funneling entire generations of young Americans to college, telling them that there is no other way beyond thousands of dollars in student debt and degrees that do not adequately prepare them for the current job market.

It’s drilled into their head from the moment they start school. High school teachers preach about the value of college and high school counselors have offices filled with college brochures—and student loan applications. For the 2019-2020 school year, the average annual cost to attend a public college as an in-state student is over $10,000. Private universities average an even higher average price tag—and the resulting degree from either scenario—while certainly helpful to some—doesn’t guarantee a job or an income high enough to pay those loans.

To be sure—it shouldn’t. Students should be taking personal responsibility for the decision to go to college and the risk/reward it offers, but we need to be giving them options to build the futures they want. And right now, overwhelmingly, we’re failing.

The good news is that there are alternatives beyond wiping away student debt by raising taxes. Real, feasible paths to a middle-class income and life that come from apprenticeships and internships, where students and workers can gain on-the-job experience without crippling debt. These are alternatives that leaders are beginning to push, as they face millions of open jobs—many of which do not require college degrees—and a workforce that is seemingly uninterested in them. 

For an example of this, look no further than South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, whose Administration has aggressively been pursuing expanded apprenticeships that allow businesses to partner with the state to fill jobs. Apprentices gain on-the-job experience—and a paycheck—while working towards licensure and are ultimately able to fill many of the trade positions that employers across the country are so desperate to fill. 

The fact is, we have millions of open jobs and a higher education system that is failing our students. So why are we still pushing every student to attend college and wasting taxpayer dollars on proposals to wipe the slate of student debt clean? This is a question I doubt many presidential candidates are ready to answer, but I invite them to leave the soundbites behind and have a frank and honest conversation about it.

Impossible, short-sighted proposals to make college “free” will only make these problems worse. Rethinking the advice we give our young students can begin to break down the college-industrial complex while strengthening our workforce.

Whitney Munro is the Vice President of Communications at the Foundation for Government Accountability.

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