Go to college and get a good job. That was the logical, two-step advice many working-class American parents gave to their children in the '80s and '90s. That’s what I was told growing up. The process seemed wholly uncomplicated: take out loans, get a degree, use the degree to get a job, use the job to pay off the loans.
But as you read this, many of us are a part of the new Lost Generation: college-educated, but drowning in student loan debt, often without a job at all, or with one which doesn’t take advantage of that increasingly expensive piece of paper on the wall. While I’m still in school, I count myself among those with a lot of money waiting to be paid after graduation.
On the other side of the world, things can work a bit differently. This summer, I had an internship (unpaid, of course) in Bahrain. There, similarly to the other Persian Gulf countries, a majority of the population consists of migrant workers, primarily from South and Southeast Asia. Most of these workers are men doing manual or unskilled jobs who send much of their already meager pay back home to support their families.
Speaking with many of these men, I heard a common lamentation: they were unable to afford higher education for their children.
According to them, there are no generally accessible programs in countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, and India to help children from cash-strapped homes attend college. The sorrow and embarrassment in the eyes of these men — often able to see their families only once a year — was heartbreaking. They were doing the most they could to provide, yet it was not enough to secure a bright future for their children.
For these families, the gatekeeper of higher education is parental wealth. In the U.S., for many the gatekeeper is either parental wealth or the willingness to take on often substantial debt. (I realize I’m neglecting the few who earn significant scholarships or work hard to take out very little debt without parental assistance.)
Hence the double-edged sword of student loans: While they give students like me an opportunity to achieve high levels of education that I would not otherwise have, they often force us to accept high levels of debt and economic strife as well.
While we often justifiably point to other Western countries with reasonable (or no) education costs, we often forget how lucky we are to even have the opportunity to be shouldered with our debt. Many of us are still in the global 1%.
This is not to say there are no legitimate complaints about the American education system — there are. This is not to say that we shouldn’t expect more from a generation which was given one of the greatest economies in history, who then turned around to give their children… this.
This is to say we must have perspective and resolve: the perspective to know where we stand in the world, and the resolve to make it better for our children.