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It’s been quite the two weeks.
First, our Center for Consumer Advocacy held its first-ever National Summit on Solutions for Student Debt November 2-3 in Boston. The event brought together 200 higher education policy experts, behavioral scientists, business leaders, student borrowers, award-winning journalists and government leaders from across the country to discuss emerging opportunities and new ideas to alleviate the student debt burden.
Panels delved into topics like “The Growing Impact of Student Debt on Unexpected Industries,” “Borrowing More Wisely and Choosing the Right Financial Fit,” and “Managing Debt by Changing Who Pays: Employer Loan Repayment.”
Photos and full videos of the panel discussions, along with speaker bios, presentations and documents, are all available on the Summit’s wrap-up web page. We were thrilled (if not a little tired by the end!) to put together a substantive event that brought together a strong cross-section of industries, all of whom are impacted on some level by the student debt situation in our country right now.
But what we were most excited about was the conversation’s focus on solutions, because fixes to the student debt problem rarely grab headlines – only the crisis does. Solutions, though, are exactly what we need, because we can’t wave a magic wand and immediately lower college costs or erase the existing student loans of 43 million Americans (well, I guess in theory we could, but highly, highly unlikely). Nor can – or indeed should – we dissuade Americans from higher education. As the old saying goes, “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
No one sector can solve this vexing challenge alone – not the higher education community, not the lawmakers, not the American public, not the students and families, and not the private sector. We’re all going to have to give a little to get a little, whether that’s colleges committing to better transparency in presenting their costs; the government and taxpayers reinvesting in higher education as a public good; students and parents injecting rationality into the college choice and financing process; or private employers putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to recruiting and retaining an educated workforce.
So at the Summit’s end, we headed into the next week energized by the prospect of practical solutions – and excited at the prospect of some much needed sleep. Except we quickly learned that sleep wasn’t in our future, as the shocking election results roiled the nation and the higher education community.
It’s too soon to know what a Trump presidency and Republican-controlled Congress will mean for student debt or higher education (you can check out my prognostications over at the Student Loan Ranger blog on U.S. News and World Report). But one thing we can say, with absolute certainty, is that we’ll need a solutions state of mind more than ever moving forward.
Student debt is a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, bipartisan issue. Sure, it definitely negatively impacts some more than others, like minorities and women in particular. But by and large, student loan problems don’t discriminate and they certainly cross party lines. The 23-year old Latino from the inner city who was first in his family to attend college finds himself struggling under the weight of his monthly student loan payments. But so do Baby Boomers Mr. and Mrs. Smith from rural white America, who borrowed heavily in federal parent loans to put their kids through school and now face a financially shaky retirement. And the senior citizen who’s facing garnishment of her Social Security benefits because she borrowed for college later in life, but was unable to see a full return on her investment due to the Recession? Yeah, she’s got student loan problems, too.
So, while the future for student loan consumers is hazy, let’s keep a laser focus on bridging our divides. Let’s find real, workable solutions for the millions of Americans, now and in the future, who depend on student loans to open the gateway to the American Dream. And let’s keep the pressure on – on policymakers, our colleagues across industries, and ourselves – to keep innovating for a world with zero student debt struggles.