By Bogdan Zymka
In the United States, there seems to be some hope of economic recovery looming as unemployment slowly falls and the election cycle brings about at least some sort of national discussion about critical issues. However, Rio is still far from making headlines in mainstream media in the United States and by the time it makes it there, it might be too late to discuss the elephant the U.S have been dragging around with them for too long: Student loan debt.
Since 1999, student debt in the United States has risen by 511 percent. Now out-grossing credit card debt, which totals $793 billion of which 12.2 percent is overdue, the Department of Education estimates that there is $1 trillion in outstanding student debt, 11.2 percent of which is 90+ days passed due. 610 billion of this is in low-interest government loans while the other 490 billion come from the private sector, full of fluctuating interest rates and sections of fine print that would rival Moby Dick. It doesn’t get any more promising. While the average student debt graduating from college was $24,000 in 2010, only 56 percent of graduates in that same year could hope to find jobs after they finished their education, resulting in a 14.6 percent unemployment rate for graduates between the age of 20 and 24 while the current national unemployment rate sits at 8.3 percent.
The U.S is going to have to seriously start looking at its education system, how it is financed and how it is valued, and this might mean taking cues from the international community. The government manages a majority of student loans in the U.S, making the issue particularly important because student loans can’t be absolved through bankruptcy; they are there forever, slowly picking away at borrower’s wages. Students are getting more and more skeptical of pouring thousands of dollars into their education only to step out into a market that isn’t accommodating. The education system in the U.S needs to change, and fast. There are two critical areas that need to change:
One: The U.S Education system needs to change the way it looks at students. Largely conceived during the turn of the century, during which the United States became an industrial powerhouse filled with factories constantly needing workers who could adapt to the times, the system is obsolete. Kids are seen as empty slates with no inherent qualities that can be built upon and are taught in batches, all filled with the same generic field of knowledge and then thrown out into a world where they have to pay obscene amounts of money to receive a specialization. By the time they are out on the job market, they are diluted and disillusioned. This needs to change. The education system must build on the inherent qualities of a child so that growth is not stunted and we eventually end up with a highly specialized workforce that actually wants to do the job they are hired for.
Two: The U.S needs to change the way education is valued and paid for. Student loan debt keeps rising as more and more kids are convinced that a college degree is the ticket to job security. While average national unemployment slowly begins to decline, youth unemployment keeps rising. This is creating a climate that feeds into the over-stimulated generational malaise that college-bound youth thrive off of to voice their frustrations. If more and more jobless college grads pile into the political sphere, student debt volatility coupled with political frustrations are going to incite some Greek style revolutionary action – Greece’s youth unemployment rate was 51.5 percent before the economic meltdown.
The U.S is going to have to address this issue somehow and it’s surprising that they haven’t proposed any stronger language in the sections on Education in the Rio draft documents. Education is where the United States really has the potential to falter as their global position of power starts to decline to make room for the emerging economies of China and India.
So far, the Informal-Informal negotiations aren’t anywhere near starting to negotiate the bodies of texts dealing with the thematic groups of education and finance but it is worrying to only see any real progressive hope of educational reform coming from G77 while the United States makes its usual effort to dilute the document into a muddled pinky-promise, which is a problem. The United States is going to have to learn to keep its students happy, or else movements like Occupy will have more leverage than ever to upturn the status quo and topple the Boomer implemented educational disaster. Without college kids going to work, who’s going to pay for their pension checks when they retire?