In the U.S. You Have To Be a One Percenter To Afford College: Not In the Rest of the World

By now the dismal figures coming out of what passes for higher education in the U.S. are not a secret anymore. The U.S. may want to think of itself as the “land of the free,” but U.S. colleges and universities are anything but. Take the forty-four million young people who owe $1.5 trillion in student loans and for whom “free” is just another word for “nothing left to lose.”  (Janis Joplin Me and Bobby McGee)

Can student loans be discharged in bankruptcy?  Short answer: No. For other kinds of debt —credit card debt, car loan debt, mortgage debt, retail credit debt: bankruptcy is always an option. Turns out that every money-grubber who stood to benefit from enslaving young Americans with inescapable debt was complicit in passing the bankruptcy ban on students from the skin-in-the-game banking lobby bribing a miserably corrupt congress with over-the-top campaign contributions to the herculean labors of Joseph Biden getting the bill through the Senate (before he became the “Savior” of the common man and Obama’s VP) whose son just happened to be a rising star at a bank reaping billions from student loans.

The fact is that most young debtors will spend twenty years or more paying off their loans. President Hope and Change, before the big bucks started rolling in, liked to tell student audiences that he didn’t say finis to his student loans until he was 43. Probably his way of “getting down” with ordinary folks by feeling their pain (as in misery loves company). Lots of debtors, many of whom attended for-profit diploma mills and community colleges and many more who left school before graduation have given up the ghost and stopped paying. Over 4½ million young people had not made a payment on their loan in over a year as of 2017, double those in the same boat four years earlier. Do I smell an epidemic hurtling down the road? In fact, some economists predict that by 2022, fully 40% of debtors will default

If you live in the richest country in the world and you don’t come from a rich family, here’s what you’re in for. Graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from DeVry University, a for-profit school, you send out 140 resumes hoping to get a job in your field.  You do get one job offer —from Starbucks offering you a job as a barista. Of course, it isn’t full-time and only pays $10/hour, but what choice do you have? Those electrical engineering jobs the placement counselors at DeVry assured you were a slam dunk once you graduated are nowhere in sight. What is right in front of your nose is the $45,000 you borrowed to get what looks like a worthless degree. So there you sit waiting for the phone to ring to find out if you’re getting extra hours at Starbucks. The first month you brought home $601, enough to pay your rent and the utilities and some cheap food, but not enough to pay the $380 you owe every month to the finance company the bank hired to collect your loan payments. See where this is going? Soon your wages are being garnished. That tax refund you were expecting to fix your car so you can get to work never arrived. Guess who seized it.

Which brings us to the unkindest cut of all. There’s no statute of limitations on unpaid student debt. You are forever beholden to the banks and the feds, not only for the total loan but also for the mountain of fees and late penalties that push your loan into the stratosphere. Take the case of Kristina M. aged 30 who left school owing $70,000. For nine years, she’s been paying whatever she can afford every month. But her loan has ballooned to $157,000. If her circumstances don’t improve (and in this plutocracy, they probably won’t), she will retire still owing a hefty amount. She will eventually join 114,000 Americans (that number will increase astronomically by the time Kristina gets to retirement age) that in 2015 were on the social security garnishment train, some receiving as little as $750 per month after a hefty portion was removed to pay down their student loan (which amid the accumulating fees never decreases). Considering that the federal poverty threshold for a single adult is $990 per month and that over half of social security recipients depend on their social security benefits for 90% of their income, a lot of seniors are spending their golden years in abject poverty.

Are young people all over the world mired in a debt trap? Surely the word’s sole superpower isn’t the only country afflicted with a rising tide of young debtors. Wanna bet? According to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a consortium of 36 of the most developed nations in the world, including the U.S., the U.S. is head and shoulders above the rest of the world when it comes to bankrupting its young people. In the past thirty years, tuition at public institutions in the U.S. has doubled (even after adjusting for inflation). Students from low-income families are really feeling the heat. Pell grants, reserved for students with the direst financial need, now cover only about thirty percent of the cost of attending a four-year public college —less than one-half of what these same grants covered in 1980. What’s a poor student to do? According to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of “Students who could benefit from a bachelor’s degree are scaling back their educational attainment for no other reason than affordability.” It gets worse. According to a recent Gallup Poll, over one-third (36%) of college graduates with student loans regret their decision to go to college.  U.S. higher education has become a rich man’s and woman’s entitlement. Kids from low-income families need not apply. In the U.S. college completion rates depend on socio-economic status not achievement. Fifty percent of U.S. students from high income families have bachelors’ degrees by age 25, only ten percent from low-income families have the same luck by age 25.

While U.S. citizens are up to their eyeballs in debt, what’s the rest of the world doing? Keeping college affordable or free so that their citizens have the training and education they need to face the challenges of an increasingly complex technological world. In case you are wondering how they do what the U.S. is incapable of doing, here’s a hint. According to the OECD, U.S. college and universities have the dubious distinction of being number one when it comes to screwing the last dime out of their students. Both at public and private institutions with U.S. oligarchs at the helm, no one gets a break. Average tuition at a public U.S. college or university is $20,090 if you happen to live in-state. Otherwise, you’re in for an additional $14,000 bringing your annual tuition cost to $34,220.

Compare that with how the rest of the world’s students are doing. U.S. fav, Israel? Their students pay $4,939 yearly. Spain, struggling under a major financial crisis, charges students $1,830 yearly. In ten OECD countries, tuition is less that $4,000. And in one-third of OECD countries, students pay nothing —zippo — to attend public colleges and universities. Definitely un-American.

No question about it, American education gets an F when it comes to affordability. How does the total U.S. investment in educational opportunity stack up against the rest of the world? Not much better. A headline from an article in U.S. News and World Report makes this stomach-turning analysis — “U.S. Spends Less As Other Nations Invest More In Education” (September 18, 2017) Here’s what the educational guru of the OECD thinks of the U.S. commitment to education: “Overall [U.S.] education spending has been cut quite severely in the last few years. That clearly puts constraints on the environment…for learning.”  His conclusions are amply borne out by the goings-on in education funding in the years 2010-2014. U.S. spending on elementary and high school education decreased 3%.  As budgets were getting slashed, the student population rose by 1%, meaning that the U.S. commitment to education fell by an additional 1% to 4%. Contrast that with the average spending by OECD countries in the same period —up by 5% per student. That’s a 9% swing in how the rest of the developed world treats its students against the treatment meted out by the blood-sucking parasites in charge of education in the exceptional nation.

Is there any hope? How does a militarized, security-obsessed country run by the wealthy for the wealthy change its stripes? Destiny calls, but is anyone in Washington listening? Colleges and universities continue to amaze with their outlandish sticker prices. Student debt plunges millions into a lifetime of oppression. Right now, three-quarters of graduating students have one or more student loans. How long will it take to pay them off? In line with its lying ways, the feds claim most will have their loans paid off in 10 years. The facts tell a different story. Sixty percent of borrowers will take around 20+ years to pay off their loans. They will be in their mid to late forties by then. That means for the first twenty years of their adulthood, their future prospects will be on hold. Can they afford their first home, what about starting a family? Who will want to marry a walking debt trap? Things don’t get better as today’s graduates age. One study found that a graduate in 2015 will have to delay retirement until the age of 75. Walmart will have no trouble hiring greeters.

Meanwhile while 44 million U.S. young people find themselves in debt peonage as the price of a college degree, let’s look again at the situation in the rest of the world? Things are going swimmingly. Take Japan with the second highest level of adult education in the world. Half of Japan’s adult population has a college degree. In the U.S. one-third do. In Japan and the rest of the world, no student has to make the heart-rending decision of whether a college degree is worth a lifetime of debt. More and more U.S. middle and working class young people are opting out of the debt trap we laughingly call education. Opting in — the children of the rich and powerful. In all three branches of government, the message is loud and clear. American education has become a capitalist boondoggle where the price of admission for millions is their future. In a country where 30 million Americans have no health insurance, 42 million Americans don’t get enough to eat, is anyone surprised that 44 million young people, mired in debt, have no future? When are the Americans who still ache for “justice for all” going to say no mas?

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