Consider these numbers from Nitro, an online aggregator of tips for paying for college:
Americans owe an estimated $1,531,799,900,000 in student loan debt.
1 in 4 Americans — roughly 44.7 million people — are burdened by student loan debt. The average amount is $37,172 and the average monthly payment is $393.
It takes the average four-year degree holder 19.7 years to pay off a student loan.
So, why do people go into that much hock for a college diploma, when so many folks these days (us included) are touting the fact that you can build a satisfying career and a healthy bank account without one?
First off, technical schools aren’t charitable institutions and some of that trillion-dollar student debt probably is carried by people who trained for careers like plumbing, HVAC and electrical work.
The reality is that a four-year degree remains a prerequisite for many careers, and also is a pretty good financial investment.
According to CashMoneyLife, someone with a high school diploma can expect $1.2 million in lifetime earnings. That increases by 75 percent with a bachelor’s degree, 108 percent with a master’s degree, 203 percent with a doctorate and 367 percent with a professional degree, such as medical or legal.
Still, it’s a costly investment. We’ve heard the protests from millennials who bemoan starting their working lives so far in the hole. We’ve heard the dismissals from the bootstrap types who say “Life’s tough and then you expire, you should’ve thought before you signed.” We’ve heard the assorted opinions as to why college has become so expensive, and the possible solutions ranging from government intervention to letting the free market’s invisible hand do its thing.
That issue can’t be settled by us in this limited space. We can, however, praise something that happened last month at Morehouse College in Atlanta, an all-male historically black institution that was the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The guest speaker at Morehouse’s spring commencement ceremony was Robert F. Smith, founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity company. According to CNN, he’s the richest African-American person in the U.S., with a net worth of $5 billion.
During his talk, Smith dropped the ultimate of zingers on the graduating seniors — he announced he would pay off all their student loans, which will run about $40 million.
Yes, we’re aware this doesn’t even register a microscopic dot on the overall problem. But who cares?
Somebody in a position to do so helped ensure that a few young people won’t start their working lives so underwater it will take them a generation to breathe air. Good for him.
However, Smith’s generosity came with a catch — he said he expected the graduates to “pay it forward,” as in do something for others if they find themselves in a similar position to help. Those are wise words; we hope they’re heeded.
This editorial first appeared in the Gadsden (Ala.) Times.