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We put a lot of pressure on kids going to college. On the day they emerge into the real world as adults, most will carry a hefty weight of debt on their backs.

I was one of them. Odds are you were, too.

During school I worked three jobs, part-time each semester, full-time over breaks. I applied for scholarships. I pinched pennies. I did everything right. But by the time I graduated, I had $68 to my name and owed more than $100,000 to the federal government. Exhausted, depressed, I moved back home. What options did I have?

This is the story of a generation of American kids who became adults without any of the traditional benchmarks: homeownership, children or the high-paying jobs we were promised. We’ve paid the minimum on our debt in order to survive; some of us will be paying for the rest of our lives.

President Joe Biden extended the freeze on student loan payments through Sept. 30, which will help many weather the storm of the pandemic. But it isn’t enough.

Cumulative student debt reached a high in 2020: $1.6 trillion among more than 40 million Americans. If each dollar of that were laid out end-to-end, the line of bills would stretch 144 million miles, circling the earth 5,760 times. 

Working three jobs through college used to be enough to pay your own way, but American education has changed. 

In a 2018 article for The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley wrote that three out of four American students attend public colleges funded by the government. She reported: “Many state legislatures have been spending less and less per student on higher education for the past three decades.”

Colleges have shifted much of that financial burden to students. To attract students with wealth, they invested in amenities, hired recruiting staff, built massive athletics facilities … further driving up costs.

“It’s a diabolical cycle,” Ripley concluded: “Colleges are very expensive to run, partly because of the high salaries earned by their skilled workers. But those higher salaries make college degrees extremely valuable, which means Americans will pay a lot ... colleges can charge more.”

Models exist all over the world for free or inexpensive college education. Why not here?

If we want to raise a generation qualified for the future, if we want to compete on the national stage in trade, innovation, economics and health care, we need free college.

If we want to save our struggling economy after COVID abates, and give 40 million people the resources to re-invest in their local economies and their own lives, we need to cancel all existing student debt.

These are not radical ideas anywhere but America, where “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” has become both a national identity and — for those of us weighed down by student debt — a morbid running joke. 

— Alissa Smith is the associate editor of the Colorado Springs Indy.

Associate Editor

Alissa Smith is the associate editor of the Colorado Springs Indy, and has lived in Colorado Springs since 1996. She has coordinated listings, curated featured events, herded cats, and both edited and contributed to Queer & There.