Boomer not OK with free college proposals
“I’m not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did.” — Yogi Berra
You know you’re old when you say, “You kids nowadays have it easy!”
Followed by, “why, when I was your age ….”
So it’s counter-intuitive when Bernie Sanders (78) and Elizabeth Warren (70) are impassioned by the epic struggles of today’s college students and graduates and propose to erase $1.6 trillion in student debt — just like that — and make college free for everyone. Joe Biden (76) also supports free college.
“Student debt is crushing the lives of millions of Americans,” Sanders thundered.
At 62, I also feel bad for Millennials who, while lucky enough to go to college, were unlucky enough to graduate during the Great George W. Bush Recession. Especially if they’re saddled with $25,000 in student debt, roughly the national average today.
It’s tough when college commencement speakers inspire graduates to reach for the stars but many grads are going back home to live with the ‘rents without rent, or work gig jobs. Or if they get a good job but are denied the mentoring, emotional support, advancement, awards and daily attaboys they need and richly deserve.
As an OK Boomer slouching into my grumpy years, I need help empathizing with suffering Millennials.
Or the grammy-grampy Democratic candidates who pander to their plight.
First, is $25,000 in debt paid over ten years really that crushing? I’m bad at math but it’s roughly $250 a month including interest, right? That’s a car payment on an active lifestyle Subaru. Life is about car payments.
I get that $250/mo. is large potatoes on the average college-grad salary of $51,000 today. Rents in cool urban neighborhoods are out of control. iPhones cost $1,000 plus $100/month in data charges. Scooter rentals are climbing. A Starbucks venti pumpkin spice latte is $5.25. Avocado toast is $8–14 a serving. Life adds up. But life is also about hard choices such as student loan v. brunch.
Second, unlike cars, education is an appreciating asset that pays off richly over the long run.
Even just a few years out, college grads earn way more than non-grads. Their job prospects are far higher. In the depths of the recession, in 2011, when the jobless rate for high school grads was 16.2 percent, it was only 5.7 percent for college grads. See here.
Third, and most of all, while college costs have spiked, Millennial college grads have not struggled or suffered more than any other generation.
Setting aside that the vast majority of Millennials weren’t conscripted to fight and die for America in WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, etc., their situation also isn’t worse than for my Class of ’83.
I graduated amid the “Reagan Recession” of the early ’80s. When I was a senior, the jobless rate peaked at 10.8 percent. For Millennials graduating during the Great Bush Recession, unemployment peaked at 9.9 percent in 2009.
Suffice that my late-Boomer classmates entered a tough job market too.
Nevertheless, we persisted.
Granted, I was stupid lucky. Since I served a four-year enlistment in the Navy before college, I got help from the GI Bill. I enrolled in University of Connecticut because the state was my last duty station and UConn waived tuition for veterans. I had jobs flipping pancakes, scrubbing pots in a dorm for free meals, and at the campus daily newspaper.
But I still needed to borrow student loans to make ends meet.
When I graduated, the job market for liberal arts majors like me was especially weak. Somehow I managed to land a job at a weekly newspaper that paid $13,500, or $34,800 today. My next job at a daily newspaper paid $16,500, or $41,000 today. That’s roughly $19 an hour, around what an Amazon Forklift Warehouse Associate job pays, and less since journalists tend to work far more than 40 hours a week.
So of course I had a string of bad roommates and worse cars. I bought Brooks Brothers shirts, Hermes ties, Harris Tweed jackets and Burberry raincoats for a few bucks from a used clothing shop in a wealthy village where widows turned in their late husband’s garments. I didn’t mind that the initials embroidered on my shirt cuffs weren’t mine.
My first place in Washington, DC, where a magazine sent me to be a correspondent, was a tiny studio in a derelict building in a “bad” part of the city. I learned a lot about people (and patience) there.
Thinking back, yes, I worried about money. A lot. I fell behind. A lot. But I don’t recall Les Misérables. Mostly I reminisce and romanticize La bohème, living a boho fantasy as a broke journalist and writer in Washington, DC, loving the movable feast of ideas and public policies in the grand capital of the Western world.
I appreciate what Sanders, Warren, Biden and other Democratic presidential candidates are trying to do.
And I agree that everyone who wants to go to college and works hard for it should be able to, regardless of financial circumstances. Too many young Americans are shut out of the chance that education provides to leverage their gifts and advance their lives and our economy and our country.
But I worry the free-college plans are free-lunch entitlements that mostly benefit the privileged.
Most of all, they walk we Democrats into a big fat Republican punch: That we’re big government tax-and-spend elitist socialists who want to rob real, struggling middle-class Americans of their hard-earned wages to indoctrinate a new generation of liberal snowflakes, because that’s what college does.
Yes, many Trump lovers believe this, even though Trump and the swamp he brought to Washington all have college and even graduate degrees and sucker the less educated.
I’d rather see the $2 trillion+ that would be wrested from the top rich for the college plans to pay for fixing healthcare, infrastructure, housing and K-12 education. Maybe I’m not progressive enough.
Most of all, the college plans pander to the wrong electorate.
For all their social media sound and sanctimonious fury, the vast majority of young people don’t bother to vote. While the celebrated 18–29 voter turnout surged from 20 percent in 2014 to the historic 35.6 percent in 2018, the youth were still trounced by every other age cohort:
30–44: 48.8 percent
45–64: 59.5 percent
65+: 66.1 percent
So, my fellow moderate, common-sense Democrats:
Let’s not hitch our wagon to what Millennials whine about. Until their votes can rival the rest of America that would pay for their entitlements.
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer