“The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.” – Sir Winston Churchill
“What is done in the dark will be brought to the light.” – Johnny Cash
The truth is very often an uncomfortable, inconvenient thing, normally to be greeted with weeping and gnashing of teeth. It is particularly troubling in politics, as all parties are one unfavorable headline away from the unemployment office. In the battle for public opinion, many will aim to control the narrative in any way they can. Control of the narrative is control of the “interpretation” of the issue.
Within the conversation of higher education reform, we see that this attempted rewrite of the story is presently underway.
One such example surrounds the issue of higher education financing. Most are in agreement that the increasing burden of student-loan debt for the average American family is growing worse, even approaching crisis levels: $One trillion in student debt spread among 38 million citizens, resulting in an average debt load of $27,000 (at last measure); median household income that presently rests at $50,000 (down from $54,000 in 2007) after the T.K.O. delivered by the recession; a steady rise in the number and percentage of recent college graduates who are taking part-time jobs in order to pay the bills–these factors add up to a situation that most would agree is untenable. Think in medical terms. If one had chest pains, lapses in memory, shooting pains along their spine, and a high fever, would one be wiser to seek professional medical treatment, or to simply insist that all is well?
This all points to the possibility that perhaps the higher-education system in this country is in need of reform both financial and structural. Recently, however, there has been a chorus of voices trying to make the case that concern about student-loan debt is not only over-blown by fear-mongering, but indeed is miniscule almost to the point of laughability. Critics, however, would say that the only thing “laughable” is this argument.
Were it not for the fact that recent college grads are either un-, or underemployed in this post-recession, “recovering” economy of ours, then, yes, those who are trying to make this case might be on to something. The numbers to support this position, however, are left woefully in want. The labor department reports that from 2002-2012 the percentage of hourly-wage workers with a college degree jumped from 13% to 17.8%, meaning that in 10 years an additional 13.4 million recent college grads began their careers as hourly-wage workers. With a minimum wage of $7.25, working a 40 hour week, these young people bring in $13,920. After factoring out estimated taxes that amount decreases to $11,832. Combined with the average amount of student debt ($27,000), it is hard to fathom how these loans can be seen as manageable.
For these 13.4 million young Americans, life’s options are severely restricted. On these salaries, and even on higher salaries for the underemployed, the option to start a family, buy a house, or just to enjoy one’s mid ‘20s – doing all these responsibly – is off the table. In short, they are overeducated and underpaid, which results in highly problematic financial difficulty. A little debt is acceptable. There is such a thing as good debt. Debt is the cost of living sometimes, but when nearly 20% (and increasing) of recent college grads are mired in debt while working a job that will not allow for all needs and obligations to be met, it is very hard to understand how anyone can seriously proclaim that there is not a problem.
Where does this leave us? Just as one does not tell a lie unless he wants to hide the truth, so too does one not seek to re-write the story unless the narrative is unsatisfactory. The fact that there is an attempt to change the narrative just as this particular issue begins to gain traction is a fine indicator to the truth of the original assertion: There is a very real problem in the financing of higher education. We must shine a light on the truth, not by partisan hackery or emotional manipulation, but through examining the truth and dealing with what we find head on.