When the Biden-Harris Student Loan Debt Relief Plan was announced on Aug. 24, with a loan forgiveness plan affecting 43 million Americans, it was guaranteed to invite heated reactions. However, whether one supports or opposes the Biden-Harris plan, the real scandal of this indebtedness is that America can’t make up its mind if it wants educated citizens, even in an era of rampant conspiracy theories. The nation’s founders, it’s worth noting, had no such ambiguity.
In the book, “The Founders and the Idea of a National University,” political scientist George Thomas tracks the lobbying efforts of George Washington, James Madison, John Adams, Noah Webster and Benjamin Rush to create a national university. These founders argued that a national institution of higher education would break down sectional differences, foster union and empower citizens to think reflectively and critically about themselves, the nation and the world.
Such an institution could educate for industry’s needs. But of equal importance, it could help students distinguish between fact and fiction, develop character and public virtue, and learn skills in reasoned debate and the building of compromise. Ultimately, the university would forge a distinctive American mind. After the Civil War, three presidents — Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes and James Garfield — revived the concept for the same reasons.
The founders realized that the creation of a democratic republic needed more than a new constitution. It required a new breed of citizen. As it turns out, they were right. On average, a university education not only allows graduates to earn a better living for their family; it helps them develop more gifts to share. According to the Lumina Foundation, college graduates are 2.3 times more likely to volunteer, with a monetary value that is 4.1 times greater than those ending their education with high school.
The philanthropic giving of college graduates is also 3.5 times greater, and they make 3.4 times more cash donations to charity, with total charitable contributions 4.7 times higher. While 52% of high school graduates vote during presidential elections, 75% of college graduates do. The university educated are also significantly less likely to become a burden to society. They are less dependent on government programs, such as housing subsidies, unemployment benefits, Medicaid, and other forms of public assistance, and are five times less likely to serve prison time. Cumulatively, this means the college educated cost the government $82,000 less over a lifetime, while simultaneously contributing $273,000 more in taxes, the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation found.
America has always had a complicated relationship with higher education. Journalist Will Bunch provides the latest analysis in his new book, “After the Ivory Tower Falls.” He begins with the GI bill’s transformation of higher education and follows the tortured path that brings us to the student debt crisis and the nation’s $1.7 trillion in student debt that is financially crippling several generations and hurting some of the most vulnerable. One-third of 25- to 34-year-olds, and nearly a quarter of those in the 18-24 and 35-49 age range carry debts they might never pay off, in no small part due to predatory loan management companies. Women comprise 58% of those who are indebted, and minorities and women average the highest monthly payments.
Universities have made enormous mistakes since the 1960s. But the debt crisis is ultimately American society’s failure to decide if it really wants an educated populace or not. It’s time to relieve some college debt from the backs of citizens who sacrificed for an education, and many Americans agree. After all, as an investment, it’s a no-brainer. The graduates will give back to society far more than they are forgiven.