Student loans have become like quicksand; the more we struggle with them the deeper we sink and the more difficult it is to escape. But it wasn’t always like that. There was a time, long ago, when college education was free. What feels like a dream for some today was reality in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Back in the day, college education was perceived as a means to improve society. Colleges provided free education or full scholarships as long as the student dedicated some time after graduating to serve the community. To earn their higher education, graduates worked as public high school teachers, community leaders or in other positions serving the community in which they lived.
In the beginning of the 20th century, the purpose of higher education shifted to focus on the individual instead of the community. People started attending college not to help their community but for the social experiences and career opportunities — especially those that come with a measure of prestige. These personal motivations didn’t go unnoticed.
Starting in 1927, donors and other prominent figures in the industry, like John D. Rockefeller and William E. Harmon, advocated for charging students the full cost of tuition because the decision to attend college had become personal. They made their case well and transformed the economics of college to depend on students’ payments.
Historically, the way higher education was perceived directly correlated to who paid for it. Today, when considering how to “cure” the student loan epidemic, perhaps we should look to the past.
Returning to a previous mindset may feel like taking two steps back when progress is regarded so highly. However, if we think of the transformation of ideas as cyclical (the same way fashion trends seem to always come back around), it may be easier to consider another perspective.
It’s hard to say whether a change in perspective would even be possible today. Programs like Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which provides loan forgiveness to people working in the public sector, seem like a step in that direction. It rewards those who use their education to better the community. But applicants still need to make payments for at least a decade, and the process is confusing and riddled with poor communication. In the end, it is not enough.
With the nation’s attention on free college, popularized by Bernie Sanders last year, perhaps it’s time to change our perspective. When everything else seems to be deepening the quicksand, why not try something old?
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