The story of education dates to ancient civilization—but the story of modern public education begins in the U.S. For over 100 years, the American university system has been the envy of the world. Talented engineers, renowned scientists, and students from all over the world come to the U.S. for higher education, especially in STEM education fields, to get the best possible education so they can land great jobs and support their families. In fact, international students often outnumber Americans, now accounting for 70% of the graduate students in electrical engineering, 63% in computer science, and 60% in industrial engineering.
International students are doing the right thing. But it is so unfortunate that it is harder for American citizens to go to American universities than it is for international students—not because our students are not qualified, but because they don’t even attempt to go to graduate school. American undergraduate students are not on a level playing field with students from other countries, including developing nations. It is heartbreaking to see our students becoming strangers in their own country.
Young American graduates are confused and in despair. I have worked with thousands of young men and women in America, and I see highly talented students not planning to go to graduate school because they are drowning in debt. After four years of undergraduate education, our students are broke, in serious debt even before they get their first job, and anxious to get a job so they can start paying back their loans. The dirty truth is that they would be making loan payments well into their 40s when they are raising a family, in addition to mortgage and car payments. Most international students do not face this problem because education is either free or affordable in their home countries.
Norway, Finland, Germany, and Denmark offer free higher education for all. France charges tuition, but it is almost free. The former Communist nations of Russia and the Czech Republic do the same. Beyond Europe, developing nations such as Argentina and Brazil provide free higher education. More than 300,000 Chinese students are attending university in America, and 40% of them are pursuing graduate studies. In China, however, the cost of college education is about $1,000 a year, which most families can afford. More than 160,000 students from India are in the U.S., and about 85% of them are pursuing either graduate studies or practical training. But in India, tuition fees are affordable if a student is admitted to university through a government selection process. If not, they pay higher tuition, but these fees are still lower than ours and can be paid back faster when converted to American dollars.
No one wants to be in debt. When I was young, I used to think people got into debt due to unforeseen situations such as job loss, disaster, and health issues. Little did I know that college and university graduates starting their lives are in serious debt in America. I sometimes hear the argument that a student won’t be a responsible citizen if the education is free. This is a shallow argument. I have never observed a single student from Germany, India or China to be irresponsible simply because they got tuition-free education. Besides, we can implement a system in which students can be held accountable for their education.
American students are becoming second-class citizens in their own country by carrying a burden of debt before starting their post-graduate lives. Being in debt affects them emotionally and physically, and it limits their lifestyle choices and their ability to make rational decisions. About 69% of students graduated from public universities in the U.S. had a student loan debt of more than $30,000. Graduates of 2016 had $37,172 in student-loan debt. A total of 44 million Americans are currently in debt due to student loans, and they owe an astronomical $1.4 trillion. Consider this:
- The total U.S. defense budget, the largest in the world, is only $600 billion.
- The total credit card debt of all Americans together is $660 billion.
- The student-loan debt in America is higher than the GDP of Australia, the world’s 13th largest economy.
While our students don’t get a break from their debts, bankers responsible for the financial crash of 2008 received over $700 billion in the bailout. On top of this, the government has made a commitment for another $16 trillion. The cost of the Iraq war is estimated at $2.5 trillion as of now and is forecast to be $6 trillion in a few decades, counting interest, as we borrowed money for the war.
Our politicians have no problem paying interest in trillions of dollars for a war of choice, but they have no interest in investing in the future of our younger generation. Our politicians are willing to lobby for big corporations and special interests but are not interested in representing our students.
In the near future, a massive number of students will likely default on their student loans, and a financial crisis will erupt. Whether or not a bailout will occur, millions of lives will be in financial and emotional disarray.
In 1862, the U.S. Congress took an extraordinary step to create what is known as land-grant colleges, which transformed America. The Morrill Act signed by Abraham Lincoln gave 30,000 acres of public land to each representative and senator. No other nation took such bold steps. We can still do it by making college education affordable and providing debt relief to 44 million Americans. Otherwise, America’s decline in education will seem unstoppable.