Young Americans are facing challenges that their parents and grandparents could not have imagined in the wealthiest, most powerful nation the world has ever seen. Burdened by crushing student loan debt, U.S. youths have come of age during a multi-year recession that will drastically reduce their future earnings prospects.
Tragically, as college tuition costs climb, job prospects are shrinking.
Student loan debt now exceeds $1 trillion (almost as big as total mortgage debt and surpassing consumer credit card debt). Indeed, U.S. student-loan debt – which has about tripled in size since 2004 – is now larger than the annual GDP of all but 15 countries.
Not surprisingly, at least 11 percent of students have fallen three months behind in their repayments, while more than 13 percent are in default, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. Even more alarming, 44 percent of loan recipients have yet to even begin paying back their loans – all these grim data augur a devastating massive default like the one we witnessed in the subprime mortgage market.
For those who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2011, the average loan debt they've accrued amounts to $26,600, according to the Associated Press. (The average debt is even higher for students who pursued higher degrees.)
Of course, for youths who are neither in school nor have ever attended higher education institutions, their futures are even bleaker. According to reports, fully one-third of all Americans between the ages of 20 and 24 are neither employed nor studying.
“In these tough times, a college degree is still your best bet for getting a job and decent pay,” said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success. “But, as debt levels rise, fear of loans can prevent students from getting the education they need to succeed.”
However, aside from cost and the viability of the American educational system, there exists another matter to be considered: Too many U.S. youths, even those who have graduated from college, are simply not well educated.
This is something I have noticed anecdotally and informally over the years, but there are studies that back up my observations.
Last December, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released a damning report about the quality of U.S. high school students.
For 2012, American 15-year-olds fared poorly in math and turned in mediocre scores in reading and science, compared to youths in other developed countries.
"In mathematics, 29 nations and other jurisdictions outperformed the United States by a statistically significant margin, up from 23 three years ago," Education Week reported. "In science, 22 education systems scored above the U.S. average, up from 18 in 2009."
Nineteen other nations read better than U.S. students.
Not surprisingly, East Asian students from China, Hong Kong, South Korea and other regional states ranked at the very top – the same countries the U.S. will have to compete with in an increasingly globalized economy.
Arne Duncan, the U.S. Education Secretary, decried the "educational stagnation" in this country.
PISA also warned that money won't make American kids study harder and perform better academically.
"While the U.S. spends more per student than most countries, this does not translate into better performance,” the group stated. “For example, the Slovak Republic, which spends around $53,000 per student, performs at the same level as the United States, which spends over $115,000 per student."
Professor Paul Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard Kennedy School, warned in an interview with NPR: “Unless we pull ourselves up to the level of the Canadians and the Germans, we are going to be foregoing about a half percent of GDP growth that we could otherwise enjoy, enough to pay 20 percent more to all of our workers over the course of the 21st century. So, this is not just a story about what’s happening in school. This is a story about what’s happening to the quality of our workforce. Our workforce has to be skilled in the 21st century, if we’re going to have a growing economy.”
Forbes recently published an op-ed by Blaine McCormick & Burton Folsom who lamented the ignorance of college students, particularly with respect to U.S. history and business.
“Most students thought Bill Gates, not John D. Rockefeller, was our nation’s first billionaire,” they wrote.
In a New York Times op-ed entitled “Clueless in America,” liberal columnist Bob Herbert warned that the future of this country may depend on how well we educate the current and future generations.
"Ignorance in the United States is not just bliss, it’s widespread,” he wrote, citing a survey of teenagers by the education advocacy group Common Core that revealed, among other things, that “a quarter could not identify Adolf Hitler, a third did not know that the Bill of Rights guaranteed freedom of speech and religion, and fewer than half knew that the Civil War took place between 1850 and 1900.” The Common Core survey also unearthed that almost one-fifth of respondents did not know who the U.S. fought during World War II.
Herbert (whom I rarely agree with) is clearly onto something here.
“When two-thirds of all teenagers old enough to graduate from high school are incapable of mastering college-level work, the nation is doing something awfully wrong,” he wrote.
No less an authority than former Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) co-founder Bill Gates has condemned the American public school system, branding it “obsolete,” according to the Times.
“When I compare our high schools with what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I am terrified for our workforce of tomorrow,” he stated.
“By obsolete, I don’t just mean that they are broken, flawed or underfunded, though a case could be made for every one of those points. By obsolete, I mean our high schools -- even when they’re working as designed -- cannot teach all our students what they need to know today.”
Paul Krugman, another liberal columnist for the New York Times, suggested money can solve this educational crisis – that is, paying higher salaries to teachers, allocating more money to upgrade school infrastructure.
But I'm not convinced that's the answer (as PISA already noted). What is really needed is a revolutionary shift in U.S. culture – a move away from greed, materialism, selfishness and frivolity.
I always think of my late father when thinking about this subject. He grew up in rural India in the 1930s and 1940s – and yet he was one of the best-educated people I have ever met in my life. In that humble, one-room schoolhouse in remote Bihar province (where books, paper, pencils, chalk were prized, but scarce, commodities), he learned math, physics, chemistry, calculus, science, history, literature, poetry, etc. The world my father inhabited was drastically poorer and different from 2013 America – with no television, no movies, no internet, no cellphones, no Smartphones. Despite all these “deficiencies,” (or perhaps distraction, my father gained far more knowledge that 99.999 percent of contemporary Americans.
How can one explain this?
I suspect human nature plays a great role. My father grew up in a brutal, harsh world where education was truly a rare gift that allowed students who excelled to free themselves from a life of poverty and/or hard labor.
Now, in the U.S. of the early 21st century, education is universally available and has largely lost its meaning. American kids, up until now, really did not have to perform well in school in order to acquire gainful employment and reach middle-class respectability. While the U.S. manufacturing industry provided millions of good-paying jobs for decades to people lacking in college degrees, those days are long gone.
And I believe that in the coming years, American students will continue to slip, and fail to acquire meaningful educations, thereby further endangering the U.S. economy, as the Chinese, the Koreans, the Indians and a few others make gains and tighten their domination of the global economy.
What has caused this decay and decline in American education and learning? I suspect a constellation of factors have conspired to create this this dismal place we found ourselves in: self-entitlement among the middle- and upper-classes; obsession with television, movies, sports and pop music; drug-and-alcohol abuse; liberal political policies that have severely damaged cultural traditions and values; and the relentless pursuit of materialism.
Thus, this dilemma cannot be solved by money nor advocacy – it may take decades for Americans to change their attitudes.
The immense prosperity and comfortably lifestyles that America has enjoyed for the past 60 years or so has come at a terrible price – millions of self-entitled people in this country who have never known poverty nor hunger nor homelessness feel that having a good job, living in a big house and driving two or three cares are “normal” and “routine” parts of their lives.
Now, as they have entered into a dark Alice-in-Wonderland netherworld or economic instability, they will slowly realize that the fantasy world they have lived in is disappearing.
But I am in no way making a blanket condemnation of all young Americans – indeed, I know many who are smart and hard-working (I even work with some). But most of their peers are slipping through the cracks, a result of a society that is rotting away from the insides.
Let me also add that I don't think the 'Asian' approach towards education is a good alternative either. Amy Chua (the 'Tiger Mom') has stirred much outrage by asserting the “cultural superiority” of Asians, particularly her own Chinese community, to explain why Asians (and Asian-Americans) perform so well academically ahead of all other ethnic groups in the world. But, although I think Chua's heart is in the right place, she forgets (or intentionally overlooks) the fact that schooling in China, Japan, Korea and India tends to emphasize rote memorization. This system produces students who perform spectacularly well on tests, but squelches individuality, creativity and innovation.
As such, I know many superbly educated Asians and Asian-Americans who have developed stellar, high-earning careers – but remain deeply unhappy, emotionally repressed and far from being well-rounded individuals.
Perhaps the answer to this educational quagmire would be a happy medium approach – one that is founded upon the rigorous discipline of the east and the embrace of individuality and creativity of the west.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.