Student loan debt is crushing us.
Not just the eight college grads, featured on Sunday in the Sun-Times, who now owe a total of $633,000 in loans that will take them years to pay off. So much for their dreams that a college education would leave them better off, as one young woman lamented. Instead, these young people got a degree printed in red ink and the burden of working multiple jobs.
The money they owe, however, isn’t even a microscopic drop in the $1.4 trillion bucket of student debt owed by 44 million Americans, as reporters Rachel Hinton and Ashlee Rezin found.
Empty that bucket, and the ripple effect is enough to almost drown the other 268 million of us.
Start with the parents of those 44 million, who just wanted to help their kids out. A case in point: The 43-year-old mother who took out loans so her children wouldn’t have to, and now owes $20,000 she can’t afford to pay back. So not only are her kids in debt, but so is she.
Other parents might not take out loans, but they end up shelling out to pay hefty tuition bills. They delay retirement and quit contributing to their pensions or IRAs. They work long hours and forget about scaling back to a job that pays less or is less stressful.
The impact for all of us is real.
Let’s say you want to sell your house; the pool of potential buyers is going to be smaller, with so many millennials weighed down with five-figure debt. They’re not house-hunting: On average, they’re delaying homeownership by seven years due to college debt, according to a report from the National Association of Realtors.
In fact, they’re not even apartment hunting. They’re living at home with the folks into their 30s — and not because of some comedic “failure to launch.” They can’t afford to pay rent while paying off their loans.
Chicago is a national leader in this respect: It’s No. 5 on the list of cities in which millennials live with their parents.
And then there’s another consequence: Kids foregoing college altogether because it’s just too expensive. As a nation, we pay a price in lost potential.
Congress must take this crisis seriously. The Trump administration, which has repeatedly shown it’s on the side of banks who profit from student loans won’t help.
One place to start is with free community college, something more states are now offering. Congress should explore the idea. Don’t just write it off as pie-in-the-sky from Bernie Sanders.
There are other potential solutions, too, such as more federal funding for financial aid — and easing bankruptcy rules for those with excessive student loan burdens.
Finally, colleges themselves have to acknowledge their contribution to the problem. College costs have skyrocketed more than 150 percent since the 1990s.
“Working your way through college” used to be realistic. Lots of us did it, and though it sounds corny, it helps build character.
Let’s find a way to let young people do that kind of character-building again.
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