If you're worried about student loan debt, what it means for graduating seniors and for the future of our nation, congratulations. That means you're paying attention. Now that Americans owe over $1 trillion in student debt, more than they owe on their credit cards, many people are beginning to see that our country's current way of paying for college cannot be sustained.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned in this space last week, our leaders are not taking the problem seriously. For all the suave coolness President Obama displayed during his "Slow Jam" on student loan debt, his call to keep the interest rate on federally subsidized Stafford loans at the current 3.4 percent will not have much of an impact. It's a distraction from the looming crisis.
Here's the problem, folks: In America right now, an entire generation is mortgaging its future. And the chances that they'll ever succeed in paying off that debt are growing ever slimmer. As tuitions continue to increase, the job market stagnates and median wages—especially for the young—trend downwards, we are now trapping millions of young people in a cycle of high debt and low opportunity from which some will never escape.
There is a better way.
I call it the National Service Corps. The idea is simple: In exchange for a few years of service to their country, young people would receive significant financial assistance to pay for college.
The idea is not new, of course. After World War II, the G.I. Bill sent millions of returning soldiers to college and technical school. Some veterans even had their entire tuition paid to attend the top Ivy League schools. The result: A generation of highly-experienced young people, trained in business, engineering and science, led our nation into the longest period of sustained economic growth the world has ever known.
The situation we face now is not so different from what we faced in 1944, when the G.I. Bill was first passed.
Then as now, America faced a new technological era that swept away millions of jobs that were never coming back (think Dustbowl farmers replaced by tractors then; bank tellers replaced by smart phones now).
Then as now, newly ascendant world powers threaten to overtake our leads in education and scientific research.
Then as now, a generation of young people faces the prospect of systemic unemployment and shaky economic futures.
What's also true is that young Americans are just as ready to serve their country in 2012 as they were in 1944. And now more than ever, America must invest to give its young people the skills they need to lead us into the future.
The basics of a National Service Corps haven't changed much since the G.I. Bill, or since I first wrote about the idea as an aide working in Congress in 1969. If you give service to your country, then your country will help you go to college. Young people who choose to participate could choose to serve in the military, or they could do civilian projects in education, community service and infrastructure building, similar to the work done now by Peace Corps and AmeriCorps volunteers.