America needs free college

Here’s a fact that’s difficult to wrap your head around: 44 million Americans hold over 1.5 trillion dollars in student loan debt. That’s an average of $37,172 per student.

To put that in perspective, student loan debt surpasses credit card and auto loan debt — $620 billion more, to be specific.

Student loan debt is weighing on Americans in ways are that beginning to impact the broader economy, too. Consumers who take a few hundred dollars out of their paychecks — on top of rent, food, and necessities — are limiting the amount of dollars circulating the economy. They’re also less likely to save their money, meaning less investment and home ownership.

To top it off, graduates saddled with debt are facing a myriad of rising costs in the economy: health care, child care and housing have skyrocketed.

There are two ways the government can respond to this crisis. The first is to forgive student loan debt altogether. My colleague Ben Edwards wrote a piece in the TNL about why that would be a bad idea.

But the second and more salient option is to stop the cycle of debt that future generations are certain to face. The U.S. government must act now to eliminate the American cost of education altogether by making it free.

Think about it: we already fund, without question, primary education from kindergarten through high school. We recognize the importance of ensuring every child a quality education so that they’re equipped for the world they’re about to enter. At the time, it was enough so that upon graduating, you could work summers to pay off college during the year and live a decent quality of life.

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But the world our parents lived in is far different than the one we live in now. Factory jobs have been automated and shipped overseas. Malls across America are closing. Wages have remained stagnant as costs surrounding us have risen, meaning it’s nearly impossible to work to pay for school without leaving in debt.

Now, a bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma. In an increasingly productive economy, workers need skills to compete for employment — skills primarily derived from a college education. Shifts in the labor market toward tech jobs and high-skilled occupations like nursing mean you’re lucky to get a job that meets your basic needs without a degree.

The typical response you hear is that there’s always jobs available that don’t require a degree: trade jobs like plumbing, commercial industry jobs like fishing, so on and so forth. But many of those positions still require some degree of training, up-front investments in permits, or a skill acquired through a technical program. Those programs should be funded much like a college degree, too, but students should not have to make the choice between working in a field they’re better suited for and a trade job.

Moreover, the jobs of the future are the ones we need to be filled. Machines are quickly replacing jobs that humans once occupied — working machines, entering data, driving trucks and even arguing cases are on their way to becoming human-less. In fact, the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that up to 800 million workers will lose their jobs to automation by 2030.

The jobs of the future are the coders and engineers managing automation, not fast-food cooks, store clerks and retail workers. It’s not enough to graduate from high school anymore; we need college degrees to keep up. It’s time we extend the existing presumption that we fund education to higher education to account for the world we live in today, not the one our parents are from.