Ever since Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) revealed her plan to forgive student debt and make public universities free on Monday morning, the internet has been a carnival of bad faith, magical thinking and misinformation about the nature of college costs in the United States.
“I don’t know if people are aware of this but you could just not attend a college you can’t afford,” said GQ staffer Joel Pavelski in a widely dunked-upon tweet. “I made sacrifices to graduate with no debt and that it is 100% possible if you make some compromises,” he added later in a non-correction correction. Others made the baffling argument that forgiving America’s current $1.5 trillion in student debt would diminish the achievement of people who already paid theirs off.
Before we get to work dispensing these arguments, it’s important to acknowledge that they are, on some level, understandable. A lot of Americans, especially those who got their bachelor’s degree before the early 2000s, find it baffling that younger generations can’t work their way through college. If the costs are so immense and the debt is so burdensome, why can’t young people simply choose not to attend college at all?
The answer is that for young Americans, skipping college or working your way through it are both much less viable options than they used to be.
Over the last 20 years, getting a bachelor’s degree has become more essential than ever. College-educated workers earn more than twice as much as high school graduates. Last year, nine out of 10 new jobs went to workers with university diplomas. From unemployment to job security to workplace benefits, the gap between college-educated and non-college-educated workers is wide and growing.
But as college has become more necessary, it has also become more expensive. Since 1989, the average cost of attending a four-year university has risen almost eight times faster than wages. Thirty years ago, when a college degree cost less than $10,000 per year (yes, that’s adjusted for inflation), students could work 10 or 15 hours a week and make a meaningful dent in their fees. These days, a part-time job at the federal minimum wage barely covers the price of textbooks.
Taken together, these trends leave many young Americans feeling trapped. If they don’t go to college, they have little chance of getting a steady, well-paying job. If they do go to college they’ll be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.
This calculation hurts low-income and minority students the most. Nearly 90 percent of African-American students take out loans to attend public universities, compared to around 60 percent of white students. After college is over, minority students earn less and are more likely to default on their loans.
While it may be a foreign concept to the Americans who didn’t go through it themselves, the high cost of college profoundly shapes the lives of young workers. Student loans are the only form of debt that can’t be vacated in bankruptcy. They impose hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars in monthly fees on young workers at the most vulnerable stage of their careers. College grads enter and leave professions on the basis of whether they will be eligible for loan forgiveness (and are understandably livid when it doesn’t come through).
But the biggest impact of student loans may be on those who decide not to apply for them at all. In contrast to the over-educated stereotype, most young people did not go to college. In a survey last year, 70 percent of millennials said finances played a role in their decision about whether and where to attend university. In the middle of an economic recovery that so far has delivered most of its benefits to the college-educated, erecting a financial wall around higher education could leave millions of Americans behind.
So however you feel about the specifics of Warren’s plan, it’s important to acknowledge the reality that young people face. There’s little evidence to suggest that millennials differ from previous generations in moral values or work ethic. There is abundant evidence, however, that they inherited vastly different economic and educational conditions than their parents.