COLUMN: Student loans are not the problem – this is


Trent Jonas

Trent Jonas is a graduate student studying English and can be reached at 217-581-2812.

Trent Jonas, Columnist

This week, the Biden administration announced its plan for broad-based student loan forgiveness. Most federal loan borrowers will qualify for up to $10,000 in debt cancellation; others may be eligible to have as much as $20,000 of their student debt canceled.

That’s great—but (1) it’s too little, too late, and (2) student loans are not the problem.

In making its announcement, the White House acknowledged that the real cost of attending college has tripled over the last four decades.

Today, U.S. students pay an average of $10,300 per year to attend a public college or university in their home state. Going to a public school out of state? Then you’ll spend closer to $23,000 per year. Students at private colleges shell out an average of $38,000 each year to attend.

You know what hasn’t tripled? Inflation-adjusted household income. Over the same period, that’s up only about 16 percent—and it actually fell between 2019 and 2020, to around $67,000.

The average savings rates among adults living in this country have also utterly failed to keep pace with the cost of attending college.

So, an average U.S. family with a student who hopes to attend private college will need to spend well over half of its household income to send their child to school—and they probably don’t have the savings to cover it.

Granted, lower income families may qualify for some assistance, but don’t even get me started on federal financial aid.

A $6,000 Pell grant doesn’t get you very far these days—even at a super-affordable school like EIU. In fact, the only thing that’s really kept pace with the cost of attending college is the amount of loan debt students carry when they graduate.

In 1980, a graduate who had to borrow to attend college walked away with an average of $3,900 in student loan debt. Today, that figure is right
around $25,000—or more than six times what it was 40 years ago. Even so, the problem isn’t student loans. The problem is how little value this country places on higher education.

For some reason, our society seems unable to pull itself high enough above its bootstraps to see that a high school diploma and a hard-working attitude does not get you too far in a service-based, technology-driven economy.

Something has to give. Many European countries—Germany, France, Denmark, and several others—offer free or extremely low-cost (hundreds, not thousands, of dollars per year) higher education. They do so not only for their own citizens, but to any qualified applicants. If you want to attend school in Iceland, Germany, or the Czech Republic, you can—practically free.

So, while the president’s student debt cancellation plan is nice-ish (given how little it helps and how many it’s ranked), it’s not what we need. What we need is an overhaul of the higher education system in this country. And it needs to start with subsidized higher education for all.

Trent Jonas is an English graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected] or 217-581-2812.