Slimantics: In higher education, student loans are a symptom, not the disease

Thin Smith

I took a 40-year break between my junior and senior year of college. When I left school, I had no student debt. When I returned to complete my education at Mississippi State, I lived mostly on student loans, supplemented by a part-time job at the B-Quik convenience store.

I graduated in the spring of 2012 with $28,000 in student loan debt. I took the three-year loan repayment forbearance and then signed up for an income-based repayment plan.

Today I owe $38,000.

I doubt my story is unique, and for many of the more than 45 million Americans in student loan debt ($1.7 trillion in total), it’s probably much worse.

Since March 2020, when federal student loan repayments were suspended due to the pandemic, I have been waiting to see what relief, if any, might come. The president extended the repayment suspension several times and spoke of some sort of debt relief, if not full forgiveness. The last number is $10,000 per person, which would take me back to where I started in 2012.

Not everyone supports the idea of ​​student loan forgiveness. The most common arguments are “you made your bed, now sleep in it” or “I paid off my college debt, so why not you? »

Both are valid arguments, but what would we get by not tackling student debt?

I’m 62, so I’ll probably never pay off my student loans. But for recent graduates, the specter of long-term student debt means money they won’t pump back into the economy.

What is lost here, I think, is that student debt is the symptom, not the disease.

How come I was able to go to college for three years and walk away debt free? In 1982, Mississippi State covered 70% of tuition. By the time I went back to school in 2011, the state’s share of tuition was 30%. For families, tuition fees between 2009 and 2019 increased by 71%, while family income only increased by 25%.

It will only get worse. Public funding for higher education has already fallen by 22% since the start of the pandemic. This year, the state legislature imposed a $400 million income tax cut (saving the average taxpayer about $150 a year). This will almost certainly mean that the state has no intention of restoring funding for higher education in a way that would actually relieve students and their families.

Ultimately, this means lower quality education as schools cut curriculum and staff to save money. Students will pay for a lesser quality education in some cases.

It’s also important to remember that if all of the $1.7 trillion in current student loan debt were wiped out today, it wouldn’t mean much to a student entering college in the fall. . In fact, that freshman’s student loan debt is likely to be significantly higher after four years as states spend fewer and fewer dollars on higher education.

Unfortunately, there is a pervasive anti-higher education sentiment in our state. A candidate whose campaign centered on upholding the state’s obligation to provide a high-quality, affordable college education to every child in Mississippi who wanted it would gain little or no traction. It could even be harmful.

As long as this attitude persists, Mississippi is likely to languish near the bottom of most economic indicators: GDP, personal income, opportunity.

Today, almost all of the debate is about workforce training as an alternative to a college education. It is certain that the improvement of the career possibilities of qualified labor deserves to be supported. But when workforce training is seen as preferable to a college education, we risk remaining what Mississippi has always been: a state of workers and not of innovators, a state of workers and not of employers.

University is not for everyone, we are told.

With insufficient funding and skyrocketing costs, this is truer than ever.

For all the wrong reasons.

Slim Smith is a columnist and editor for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]

Slim Smith is a columnist and editor for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]

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