Escalating Student Debts in Richest Countries Re-Emphasize Need for Socialist Approach to Education

Young People Should Not Be Starting Life Saddled With Big Debts

student debt

Young people should be able to start life on a note of freedom and liberty. They should be entirely free to act according to the voice from their heart regarding what is the most promising and satisfying work for them. They should be able to choose work where they feel they can contribute most to society.They should be free to walk the path less travelled, if this is what they really want to do in their life.

But this becomes very difficult if the young are burdened with huge debts right at the start of their life. Unfortunately this is precisely what has happened in some of the richest countries, denying important democratic choices to young people when they need this the most. In the USA, for instance, youth in the age-group 18-29 years have a huge outstanding debt of 1000 billion dollars, the largest share of this consisting of student debt.

If we look at just student debt (which can continue for decades) across all age-groups, this amounts to 1700 billion dollars for 44 million people ( 1 in 6 US adults), up from 905 billion in 2011, a 90% rise in a decade from an already high level. For perspective, 1700 billion is 600 billion higher than the entire credit card debt of the USA and it is also higher than the GNP of most countries.

A student with a 4 year college course has an average of around $30,000 debt in USA. The burden can be worse for women and persons of color.

According to an AAUW Report ‘Deeper in Debt—Women and Student Loans’ in USA women have an average of $31,276 in student debt, leaving them with an average monthly repayment of $307 for student debts. This report says that one year out of college a woman may be paying on average $920 per month for housing, $396 for car loan, $ 307 for student debt, and for 16% of them who are moms, an additional payment of $520 is needed for child care. At the same time the average post-tax salary for these young women is likely to be $ 2434 per month.

At the time of leaving college, debt burden for blacks is about $7500 higher compared to whites, but due to their more difficult repayment situation, 4 years later this is likely to increase to a difference of around $25,000.

Problems for college-leaving youth increase due to the fact that  payments for many of them as trainees in many corporate units or elsewhere are all too low and sometimes even nil, while repayment obligations start all too soon. A survey of the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 40% of interns in corporate units were unpaid.

To student debt should be added the burden of credit card debt. Serious delinquency has been reported to be at exceptionally high levels for 18-29 age group credit card debt in recent times. Not just mental tensions but physical illness once a month related to this has been reported from 20% of the indebted youth in surveys.

In UK which has similar levels of average student debt as the USA, among indebted youth 81%  have associated this with mental stress and 31% with more serious health problems.

This also has an adverse impact on family life. When young persons are starting a family, this is supposed to be the sweetest time in life but all too often now has to be spent under the shadow of debt. Many young college-educated couples are unable to afford satisfactory housing, or have to postpone having their first child for too long.

While these health and family issues already captured in surveys are really important, these should not lead to the neglect of other, less tangible but nevertheless very important aspects of the life of young people.

If young persons are saddled with debt when they emerge from college, this means that they are already under a lot of pressure to start earning a certain amount of money immediately. This leaves them little time to wait till they can find a livelihood which is satisfying for them in a social and ethical sense as well, apart from meeting their essential economic needs in a satisfactory way.

As the yearning of youthful hearts for living and working according to their ideals is not satisfied and as their deeper social-spiritual  aspirations are frustrated at an early stage of their life, this often leads to a drying up of flowers before  they can blossom and sometimes   leads to destructive tendencies such as substance abuse and family quarrels.

This is not just an individual loss but a social loss as young people can best contribute to creating a better society only when they are able to work in keeping with their social-spiritual urges and related creativities.

While this is certainly a big social loss if the aim is to create a better society, it appears that the capitalist system does not really mind this loss. From the point of view of this system, it is actually helpful that those freshly emerging with college education try (not having much of an option due to their debts) to get absorbed very quickly in the existing system without raising too many questions or experimenting with genuine alternatives, or exploring less travelled paths.

This is perhaps the reason why solutions which can permanently end this heavy indebtedness of young people are not even being sought. What is on agenda is a debt relief—of around up to $10,000 per student debt as per current government thinking, while the demand for relief up to $50,000 for student debt has also been raised (such debt sometimes increase to over $100,000 with the passage of time; loans for special streams of education like medical education can be much higher). A one-time debt cancellation will of course provide some relief, but as long as the system remains the same, after some time the debts will pile up once again. Hence clearly more systemic change in higher education is needed to avoid student indebtedness and bring other desirable changes, but such far-reaching reform does not appear to be on the agenda at present.

This also reminds us of the success of several socialist countries in making accessible more or less free or very low cost higher education to a very large number of students. In fact a lot of medical students from India have been heading for formerly socialist countries where medical education is still much cheaper compared to other countries despite other recent changes. A small country like Cuba which has often faced sanctions and other hostile actions from its powerful neighbor the USA has nevertheless been able to produce and nurture a very substantial number of well-qualified doctors who moreover are not guided by the profit motive and are willing to accept a lot of hardships in order to serve people in the most difficult conditions in disaster and conflict zones of world. Clearly much can still be learnt from the socialist model for higher education.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril—People’s Response the Only Way Forward and Protecting Earth for Children.

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