The feel-good story of the century has to be billionaire Robert F. Smith’s pledge to pay off the student loans of the 396 graduates at his alma mater, Morehouse College. The 2019 class got a $40 million lesson about paying good fortune forward — one that will pay dividends even more than these amazing young men know, but will realize the longer they live, breathe, and prosper on this planet.
Every graduation season is filled with messages of hope, the future and progress toward a better tomorrow. But no matter how good the commencement speaker is (with the obvious exception of Mr. Smith), the reality of financial burden sets in long before the tassels are flipped, the caps are tossed, and the robes are shed.
My favorite college student just finished her sophomore year. She reports her peers are already freaking out about the massive debt they will have in front of them. And if they have to go on to graduate school, as many professions now require in order to be employable, there’s even more anxiety.
One Morehouse graduate told of having multiple family members helping him take out loans to get to school. And that $200,000 debt staring him in the face was no joke. It’s unconscionable that anyone 21 or 22 years old has six-figure debt before they’ve gotten their first professional paycheck. Granted, I graduated in the stone age, but I was able to pay off my one loan in the first year of employment. And the first and only time I had a six-figure debt, I had just put money down on a house.
Yet I have friends in their 40s and 50s who are still paying off college loans. We can’t even get near a real solution on the nationwide housing crisis until we address the fact that many millennials and Gen Zers won’t be able to buy a house, or even live on their own with stagnant wages and a mountain of debt.
Now here is where I acknowledge my unabashed admiration for Sen. Elizabeth Warren. I find her ability to speak, explore and have solutions to many problems in our society phenomenal. And I’ve argued with several people, from my opthamologist, to friends who can’t stand her voice, or find her unelectable or unpresidential (really, there officially now is no such thing, folks), that her policies will resonate, because they address the reality of real people’s struggles.
When Sen. Warren proposed forgiving college debt, some who had paid theirs off were aghast. They had done their due diligence, why should other people benefit when they didn’t? Others were swayed, because when you’re middle-aged and you still have debt from 20-30 years ago that doesn’t include four walls and furniture, you’ve had it up to here.
Not everyone has a college fund, or a nice trust fund they can draw from. Some of us, a whole bunch of us, had families that worked multiple jobs just to put food on the table and gas in the car. But since higher education is supposed to be the tide that lifts all boats, second, or third, mortgages were taken out, loan applications were taken out, and names were signed on the dotted line.
I had to chuckle two years ago when we were going through the loan application process. I knew we weren’t going to get any money, and I was OK with that, but we had to go through the motions at my daughter’s high school guidance office.