The Origins of American Student Debt and the Path Forward

by Melissa Marquez

During the first Presidential Debate of 2016, Trump had repeated the number “$20 trillion”, as in “We owe $20 trillion, we’re a mess”. And it’s true! The U.S. owes over $19.6 trillion dollars. But as a 21 year-old college student, it’s not exactly new information to hear enormous numbers regarding the debt leftover from previous generations. But did you know that student debt takes up nearly 10% of the national debt? As of 2016, 43 million students are borrowing $1.6 trillion in student loans, which means that on average, graduates will owe over $37,000 in student debt. But where does all that money go? Well, according to UC Davis Admissions, the 2016-2017 Cost of Attendance equals $35,000 and is distributed as such:

CA Residential Tuition and Fees: $14,046

Books and Supplies: $1,601

Room and Board: $14,838

Personal Expenses: $1,561

Transportation: $629

Health Insurance: $2,328

After three years of attending college, you would have already paid well over $100,000! Now, if you’re anything like me, you’d be scratching your head and thinking to yourself, “Has college always been so expensive?”

The answer to that is a resounding “no”. In1976, the annual tuition fees of the Universities of California totaled to about $630, which is about $4,000 in today’s currency. However, in the 70’s, not many people were interested in investing time and money into receiving a college degree. In 1972, only 49% of high school students went to college, and many grants were able to cover 80% of the cost of attending. As Ronald Reagan rolled into office, he persuaded America to realize that without a change in education, the nation would be unable to prosper and would get stuck in a “tide of mediocrity”. And so, educational reform took place as the Reagan Administration aimed to improve the quality of schooling all over the nation. However, this did not include higher education. These reforms consisted of the implementation of standardized testing and therefore enforcing academic accountability of public state schools at the elementary and high school level. The efforts forced public schools to align their curriculum with standardized testing in order to continue to receive state funding and produce highly skilled students.

Alongside this, those with a bachelor degree earned 1.5 times the annual pay of someone with only a high school diploma as of 1975. Companies began to favor individuals with college degrees as well, thus emphasizing the importance of education. Unfortunately, the large demand for college education and lack of room to house the incoming students had resulted in an increase in UC tuition, which had more than doubled to $1,296 in 1986.

During this time, students were forced to rely more heavily on student loans. Although the Reagan Administration recognized this problem, they were unable to offer an alternative solution other than to cut federal funding towards higher education. Rather than providing more grants, the government only handed out more loans. And by 1996, tuition had risen to $4,354. Twenty years later, the cost of attending UC Davis has inflated almost 900% and students still rely heavily on their student loans.

With so much debt accumulated, where do we go from here? This exact question is one of the many reasons young voters flocked to Sanders. A web site not affiliated with the candidate, Feel the Bern, explains, “Bernie believes that no student who is willing and able to go to college should be denied based on the income of their parents. The S. 1373: College for All Act, which he introduced, would make all public colleges and universities tuition-free.” Although his policies resulted in some skepticism, he offered a solution.

After he dropped out, young voters quickly turned to Trump and Clinton and evaluated their proposed educational policies. Clinton also supports tuition free education and proposes that “students from families making less than $125,000 a year be able to attend a public college or university in their home state without having to pay tuition, and that all community colleges be tuition-free”.

Trump, on the other hand, has not offered a solution, but has highly criticized the “federal student loan program for making a profit…” If Clinton’s policies are enacted, what would be the effect of tuition-less universities such as Davis? Meredith Kolodner, writer for the Hechinger Report, doesn’t believe that the Democratic Party’s plan would make a difference. Rather, the actual cost of college would still deter students from attending without the support of some kind of financial aid or loan.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Daniel Bouchard says:

    Free, eh?


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