Tackling student loan debt, $1 trillion dollars at a time; a fresh perspective on the issue from guest blogger David Chambliss

$1 trillion dollars is a lot of money! It is a number so large, I can’t really comprehend it.  I also can’t comprehend how we expect to grow the U.S. economy if we continue to graduate our best and brightest students, strapped with debt.

When I was 18 years old, my father told me that I would need to take out student loans to attend college. It would cost me almost $60,000 to attend a 4-year, public university. As a first-generation college student, I thought I had two options – accept this debt (which I also couldn’t comprehend) and go to college; or, turn down the student loan and live in my parents’ basement for the rest of my life. If this sounds like a familiar dilemma, it’s likely that you or someone you know has also accepted the “choice” of living with mountains of student loan debt.

As of 2009, student loan debt has even surpassed credit card and auto loan debt!

Student Loan Debt Graphs

This debt is killing the purchasing power of recent college graduates, impacting the economy in innumerable ways, but namely through a shift in renting vs. owning homes, a lack of retirement and other savings, and placing a hold on the desire/ability to start and grow families.

Now, don’t get me wrong – taking on SOME amount of student loan debt for the attainment of higher education is a reasonable, even good thing. I am not making the case that higher education should be 100% free – but the idea that some colleges and universities are “affordable” is almost laughable. And that shouldn’t be the case in a country like ours.

With the debt bubble extending past $1 trillion dollars, politicians and policymakers, higher education administrators, economists, public advocates, students, and families are scrambling to figure out a solution…ANY SOLUTION. So, to this end, n Saturday, June 20, as thousands of people gathered (rain and shine) for Columbus’ PRIDE Parade in the morning, then the Buckeye Country Music Festival in the evening, I, instead, joined 20+ other individuals to “hack” solutions to this very pressing policy problem. The event was called “Polithon,” it was the first of its kind, and it took place in the Ohio Union.

Side Info: Polithon is a DC-based non-profit organization that calls upon millennials to seed “post-partisan solutions” to some of the country’s most pressing policy issues. After selecting a focus issue, the organization brings community leaders, policy wonks, and just generally active citizens together for a day or weekend “hackathon,” where the goal is to compete in teams to come up with possible solutions to the issue at hand.

Polithon group discussing 2

One group bouncing off ideas at the June 20, Ohio Union Polithon event

I was fortunate to be chosen to attend the Student Loan Polithon at The Ohio State University, where I had the opportunity to spend an entire day with 20 very smart, motivated, and innovative thinkers.

Polithon group discussing 3

There’s me, on the right, listening to fellow participants


This bipartisan group of millennials came to Ohio State’s campus from Cincinnati, Youngstown, Columbus, and elsewhere around Ohio. Participants ranged in age from 19-31, and represented numerous stakeholder groups – undergraduate students, graduate students, community organizers, higher education administrators, political consultants, lobbyists, and lawyers. For twelve hours, we sat in a room and tried to answer this one question: “How can the state of Ohio tackle the issue of student loan debt in a systematic way, dealing with access to education, educational financing, loan reform, the mounting cost of higher education, state divestment, student choice, remittance programs, and dealing with the damage already done?”

Polithon group discussing

Another group, working to evaluate a policy idea

As much as we wanted to find the silver bullet to this complex issue – we came up with three areas that we believe present a more comprehensive solution. First, we don’t believe consideration of your options as they relate to higher education should begin when you are 18-years-old – it has to start WAY sooner. After reading my group’s recommendations, listed below, please let me know if you agree!

We are a nation that prides itself on having the best colleges and universities in the world. We (most of us) encourage our children from a young age to dream big and work hard towards their goals – we tell them that with hard work AND A COLLEGE DEGREE, you can be anything you want to be. This used to be the case, at least, back in your parents’ day when the wages for a college-educated person significantly outweighed the cost of college. But today, our college graduates are leaving school and, if they are lucky, finding a job that pays them an annual salary that’s close to the size of their student loan debt. (Full disclosure: My first year out of graduate school, my student loan was almost 3x the amount of my annual salary).

I’ll finish with this – clearly I don’t have all the answers to this complex problem. I call it a problem and not a crisis, because if it were a “crisis” there would be much more outrage by the general public. But, the needle is moving ever so closer over this higher education bubble – and I don’t want to be around when it bursts. So, I’ll ask the same question of student loan debt anti-reformers that Congressman John Lewis (GA) so famously asked of those tentative about the civil rights movement in the 60’s – “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”



If you’d like to learn more about student debt, here is a video of a great TedX speaker from Washington University, professor Greg Gottesman discussing student debt: