Why the National Debt Has Yet to Resonate with Students
While topics like climate change and human rights gain traction in the consciousness of college students, the abstract nature of the federal debt makes for a challenging sell.
It’s as if Congress has been given an unlimited bar tab that my generation will be forced to pick up at the end of the night. Yet, the national debt is not a topic I hear being discussed in my college’s dorm rooms or dining halls. Why, then, has the debt crisis yet to resonate with college students?
College students are inundated with issues to care about. A scroll through social media reveals an info-glut of injustices, causes to support, and conversations young people are called to start. With so much information coming at us, there is little attention left for issues that are not immediately in front of us. As of now, conversations about the national debt have not reached prominent, visible platforms. If no one else is talking about the debt crisis, especially those with loud and trusted voices, how are college students to know about it or care?
If no one else is talking about the debt crisis, especially those with loud and trusted voices, how are college students to know about it or care?
The national debt lacks the element of instant feedback and call to action that exists with other issues that students are passionate about. College students are far from apathetic about public policy change. Universities are increasingly adding majors such as human rights and social justice to meet the demands of students who want to improve current systems. If a student wants to contribute to solving the long-term issue of climate change, they can see photos of the melting ice caps and can start recycling today.
The issue of the debt has no such equivalent. There is no clear cut way that an individual can make a meaningful difference to remedy the problem. It is seen as unemotional and impersonal.
Many college students do not understand what the debt is and how it affects them. We have not experienced in our lifetime a period of long-term, slow economic growth that can occur when debt is left unchecked. We do not fully understand the effect of monetary policy on everyday life, simply because at this point in our lives, it has yet to affect us in a significant, direct way. More often than not, college students have not entered the full-time job market and do not have mortgages, retirement savings, or large investments. Therefore, we have less incentive to understand the interaction between macroeconomics and personal finance.
Of course, college students are incurring more student debt than any generation before and the average cost of tuition is at an all-time high. When you are on a ramen noodle budget with your own debt looming, it’s hard to imagine overspending by $23 trillion and feel as if you have a personal responsibility to remedy it. The little-known irony is that failure to address the national debt can cause the interest rates on our student debt to increase.
When you are on a ramen noodle budget with your own debt looming, it’s hard to imagine overspending by $23 trillion and feel as if you have a personal responsibility to remedy it.
Amongst students, there is a general connotation that the debt is bad, abstract, and beyond our understanding. We have given full responsibility to our democratically-elected representatives to understand and handle the budget with care. When asked about their thoughts on the debt we owe to China, one student replied, “We owe money to China? I have never asked China for a dime! Congress owes China.”
Today, our classrooms encourage us to not to be a cog in the wheel but to find our passion and ways to make a meaningful impact. Perhaps the key to engaging college students on this issue is to channel their desire to change the future.
According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the United States spends more on interest on the debt than on the Departments of Education, Homeland Security, Transportation, Justice, and Energy combined.
When asked about their thoughts on the debt we owe to China, one student replied, “We owe money to China? I have never asked China for a dime! Congress owes China.”
The debt is stealing the opportunity to invest in the issues college students already care about. Debt affects every issue because it limits our ability to make meaningful change. Even if all students don’t understand the intricacies of the debt, they can understand the impact. That is a conversation worth starting in dorm rooms, on social media, and especially in Washington.