Drowning In Debt To Get A Degree

Higher education in America is caught in a vise of competing realities. While not the only road to success, access to higher education is vitally important for individuals to be able to participate in today’s changing economy and for the United States to maintain its global competitiveness. Indeed, the number of Americans with a college degree has reached a new high . Yet structural disinvestment in higher education jeopardizes both quality and access. And skyrocketing costs have put postsecondary education out of reach for many people, which threatens to exacerbate America’s already vast economic divide.

Randi WeingartenWeingarten with students protesting rising student debt. Photo by Michael Campbell.

Colleges, universities and community colleges are centers of innovation, cultural hubs and engines of economic growth. In short, they are a tremendous public good . But years of inadequate public financing have shifted the costs associated with these public institutions to individual students and their families.

Public investment in higher education is at its lowest point in more than a quarter-century in inflation-adjusted terms, causing deep cuts to vital academic programs and student support services. It has also altered the academic workforce—more than 70 percent of professors at our public institutions are inadequately compensated contingent faculty who, despite their commitment to providing the highest-quality education to their students, often lack the professional supports to do so.

While we should celebrate the growing number of students attending college, we must also support them. Nearly half of all students who enroll in an institution of higher education do not receive a credential within six years. The figures are even starker for African-American and Latino students. Risk factors for noncompletion range from inadequate income and home support, to work and child care obligations, to insufficient academic preparation. Decimation of programs that support at-risk students has aggravated these challenges. The AFT and our members are working to change this—by both pressing for supports in college and working to transform the preK-12 education system so that all students are prepared to pursue college and career. But the issue of crushing student debt remains.

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—Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers

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