I came to this country as an immigrant from India to go to college. My parents used all their savings to send me here because they knew what we all know and what we all tell our kids: If you want a good job, you’ll need more than a high-school education. Whether it’s a two-year, a four-year, or a vocational institute, the reality is that in today’s world, you must get more than a high-school diploma.
The unfairness of it, though, is that getting that advanced degree has become completely unaffordable. Today, our young people are making untenable choices: going to college and taking on mountains of debt, or forgoing the college degree to work part-time or minimum-wage jobs that simply won’t allow them to build a future. Or, if they go to college and come out with an average of $30,000 per person in debt, they live in perpetual fear. That choice hurts not only our young people; it hurts our families, our communities, and our economy.
It wasn’t always that way. Getting a college degree used to be free, or low cost, because as a society, we saw providing higher education to young people as an investment—in them and in the future of our own country. More people with good educations meant more trained workers. More trained workers meant more jobs filled. More jobs meant more money back into our economy. And of course, better jobs ultimately meant people could have a better future, raise a family, and live with economic security.
We were investing in a cycle of prosperity. That’s why places like the City University of New York and the University of California used to be free. That’s why we invested in the GI Bill to cover college costs for millions of veterans. That’s why we invested in Pell Grants to help cover more than half the cost of tuition at public colleges, helping our lowest-income students and millions more to be the first in their families to attend college and have the promise of a brighter future.
And because of that investment, we led the world in terms of the percentage of young people with college degrees. Today, we’re 11th, and the trend is continuing downward. In-state tuition at four-year public colleges has almost quadrupled, and state spending on public colleges is at its lowest rate since 1980. If current trends continue, spending on public colleges could drop to zero in some states by 2022. Pell Grants today only cover about 30 percent of the cost of attending a public institution—and a full 83 percent of all students attending public universities graduate with student debt. Too many people stay in debt their entire lives—a recent study found that there are 3 million older adults still with student-loan debt, seeing their Social Security earnings garnished. And students of color and low-income people are hit especially hard. It is absolutely unacceptable that student debt in America today totals a staggering $1.3 trillion—even more than credit-card debt.