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I was talking to several USC classmates during Sunday’s Warriors game and asked how much they had borrowed to pay for their undergraduate studies. The attorney, investment advisor, and biology professor all answered the same: “Nothing.”

When I began my career as an assistant dean of Students at Saint Mary’s College in 1971, tuition was $1,800 per year. If a student received a $500 grant from the college and another $500 from the State Scholarship, her/his remaining debt was $800.

Students often got summer jobs babysitting, working at hamburger stands, or picking fruit and vegetables. Making the minimum wage for three months could earn enough to put a pretty good dent in the remaining balance, and on-campus jobs left most students with little or no debt.

Next year’s tuition at Saint Mary’s will be just shy of $50,000.

When our daughter, Ayanna, graduated from UC Berkeley in the mid-1990s, some of her friends asked what her parents were going to give as a graduation gift. Cash? A new car? A vacation to an exotic location? She responded that we had paid for college and that was gift enough. The annual costs for tuition for California residents was slightly more than $1,600 for two semesters that we paid in two installments.

Next year, Berkeley’s tuition will be $14,184.

While all colleges and universities provide financial aid for their students, 69 percent of U.S. students in the Class of 2018 graduated with an average loan debt of nearly $30,000 and monthly payments approaching $400 or more.

A Forbes article subtitled “The $1.5 Trillion Crisis” observes that the $1.5 trillion in loan debt owed by students is more than total credit card debt in the U.S. and second only to mortgage debt.

Some economists have predicted that 40 percent of borrowers may default on their student loans by 2023, which could have disastrous economic consequences similar to the implosion of the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crisis.

In a September 2018 article, Rebecca Safier detailed some of the ways that student loan debt stands in the way of allowing young people to achieve what was once known as a middle class life — owning a home, saving for major life goals — including children’s educations, and building for retirement.

Safier notes that 64 percent of college graduates without student debt own a home, while barely half of those with loan debt do. The average retirement savings for those without debt is more than $98,000 but only $43,000 for those with debt. Those without debt have more than $38,000 in liquid assets while those with debt have less than $18,000.

Marc Huelsman, whose research focuses on college affordability, student debt, and racial equity in higher education, observes that Black and Hispanic students borrow more often and in higher amounts for their degrees. This is most likely because these students often come from lower income families who are less likely to have accumulated the wealth necessary to support their children’s educational pursuits.

Writing in the May 3, 2018 Atlantic, Ronald Brownstein observes that as younger generations have become more racially diverse, many states are allocating fewer dollars to public higher education.

Graduates of historically black colleges have 32 percent more debt than students from other schools. Into this gap stepped investor and philanthropist Robert F. Smith, who surprised the Morehouse College Class of 2019 a few weeks ago by announcing that he and his family were providing a special graduation gift: They are going to pay all of the students’ loan debt — a gift estimated to be worth $40 million.

Smith is not alone in providing freedom for students to pursue their dreams free of the burden of loan debt, Home Depot co-founder Ken Longone announced last year that he would pay tuition for every medical student at New York University, a gift worth some $100 million.

Anand Giridharadas coined the term MarketWorld for the notion that the private sector can fix anything with enough money. However, he believes that the kind of philanthropy practiced by Smith and Langone “makes people believe that billionaires are taking care of our problems.”

America’s future is greatly dependent on an educated citizenry. However, while the U.S. once led the world in the number of young people with college degrees, today we are No. 19 out of 38 developed nations. While the heroic generosity of billionaires is admirable, the future requires each of us to do more to support efforts to liberate the next generation to pursue their dreams in pursuit of a stronger nation.

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Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: thedean@tbrownassociates.com

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