Mother’s Day weekend is always a special time for us to celebrate and amplify the resilient women who did so much for us and asked for nothing in return. It’s even more fitting, given that so many of our mothers sacrificed for our futures, that this is also graduation weekend at many schools.
I graduated on Mother’s Day weekend, as did all three of my older siblings. And I remember my mother’s face as we walked across that stage, the simple pride and contentment held in her smile because that diploma was as much a recognition of her hard work as it was ours.
That debt will never be repaid. Unfortunately, for most of us, it’s not the only debt that’s owed.
Like so many others around the country, I was a first-generation college student and only a second-generation high school graduate. I represented not just myself, but my entire family, their hopes and their dreams. So completing my studies and earning that degree was the only option.
Unfortunately for myself and for all those like me, that option came at a high cost. Now let’s be clear, I am incredibly thankful not only for my education but for the opportunities it has provided.
As an American with both undergraduate and graduate degrees, I am very much in the minority. Only about 13.1% of adults in America have an advanced degree (up from 8.6% in 2000) and that number is much smaller in my community. Roughly 26% of African Americans earn a bachelor’s degree and only 6.2% go on to earn a master’s or higher.
Of course, as with many others, that education puts me in another group -- Americans with significant college debt and, as a professor once told me, “Some debts are fun when you are acquiring them, but none are fun when you set about retiring them.” According to Forbes, roughly 45 million Americans are struggling with student loan debt, totaling nearly $1.6 trillion collectively -- making it the highest debt category in America behind only mortgages. In other words, student loan debt accounts for more than both credit cards and auto loans.
More than one-third of Americans between 18 and 29 report that they have outstanding student debt, with more than one in five Americans between 30 and 44 reporting the same. And that debt is having serious economic consequences. For example, in 2019 the Wall Street Journal reported that homeownership rates in America dropped for the first time in two years. Why? Because younger people simply weren’t buying houses anymore.
In fact, the average age for first-time homebuyers right now is 47. In 1981, it was 31. What’s the chief reason for this change? The same thing that’s keeping younger investors out of the market and making young entrepreneurs an endangered species: student debt. In other words, student debt is putting the brakes on the economy -- the whole economy -- making it one of the most consequential issues of our day.
But I also made it clear that the outreach that helped create that turnout couldn’t stop once the election was over. Now it is clear to me that, while outreach can and should come in many shapes and sizes, the best way to deliver on a real issue that has real consequences for these voters is to deliver on student loan forgiveness and free community college, as outlined in President Biden’s address to Congress last month.
The numbers indicate strong support for this: 65% of likely voters support the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program while 67%, including 58% of Republicans, back some form of widespread student loan forgiveness.
Those numbers make it clear that you can’t file this issue in the partisan politics folder to become part of the us-vs.-them narrative we hear so often. This is an American issue that impacts everyone. It affects our pocket books, it affects our children and it affects our jobs.
That’s why we can’t just put on the agenda. We have to put it in the priority column. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to each other. We owe it to our mothers.