Arianna Huffington

I dropped off my daughters at college. As any parent with children in college knows, this is a bittersweet ritual -- piling your kid's belongings into your car, getting them set up in their dorm rooms, then being shooed away, leaving them with classmates, friends, deans and professors. Of course, it's bittersweet mostly for the parents. For the kids, it's about anticipation, excitement, the sense of possibility. We are thinking about the past (weren't they just starting kindergarten five minutes ago -- how can they be going to college?). They are thinking about the future.

It was particularly poignant for me because my older daughter is beginning her senior year; I was dropping her off for the last time.

As I made my way back to New York, I had a chance to reflect on the opportunities that going to college had given me. When I was 16 and living in Greece, I saw a magazine article about Cambridge and was overcome by a desire to study there. And I was lucky enough to get in. In the years after graduating, pretty much every break I got could be traced back to that experience.

Unfortunately, growing numbers of today's college students are having a very different experience than mine. It's not the education that's changed; it's the circumstances surrounding it. Increasingly, graduating from college no longer means putting your education to work for you -- it now means being a virtual indentured servant to your education. Instead of propelling you into the future, more and more it means trapping you in the past.

And since a new class of students is off to college this month, there's no better time to re-examine the mountainous student debt college graduates are taking with them, what it will mean for their futures, and what it will mean to the future of America.

The statistics paint a sobering picture of how much the experience of getting a college education in the United States has changed.

For the first time, student loan debt will be approaching $1 trillion. In 2000, that number was around $200 billion.

The average 2011 graduate entered the job market carrying around $27,200 of debt, according to Mark Kantrowitz of the financial aid websites and

The debt load is now so great, says Kantrowitz, "in the coming years, a lot of people will still be paying off their student loans when it's time for their kids to go to college." That will certainly change the fall ritual. Parents can drop off their kids' stuff at the dorm and then the whole family can take a trip to the student loan office.

Of course, today's college grads are not only entering the job market with a crushing debt burden, they are entering it at a time when the unemployment rate for those 20 to 24 years old is nearly 15 percent.

To put the challenge these college graduates are facing into perspective, consider this startling statistic: Right now there are about the same number of jobs in America as there were in 2000 -- but there are 30 million more people in the country.

And for those recent grads lucky enough to find work, wages have actually dropped over the past 10 years.

As HuffPost's Amanda Fairbanks reported, in an effort to pay down college debt, an alarming number of students are turning to so-called "sugar daddies." The sex-for-tuition arrangements are facilitated by a new collection of startups, such as "Over the past few years, the number of college students using our site has exploded," says Brandon Wade, the site's founder. "College students are one of the biggest segments of our sugar babies and the numbers are growing all the time." Not exactly what parents had in mind when they dropped off their kids for orientation week.

So, over the past half century, we've gone from the G.I. Bill to Sugar Daddies. The former was a forward-looking tool that helped pave the way for unparalleled economic growth and what came to be called "The American Century." The latter is just another symbol of our self-inflicted march toward failure and decline. From the Greatest Generation to the Most Indebted Generation.

In fact, the post-9/11 G.I. Bill, modeled on the original and designed to help returning veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was cut as part of the budget deal the president and Congress made last December. And in the recent debt-ceiling deal, a program designed to ease the debt burden of graduate students was cut.

Education has always been the cornerstone of America's promise of upward mobility -- the gateway to middle-class life. As President Obama said in his 2010 State of the Union speech, "in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college."

As he announces his jobs plan to the nation on this week, let's hope the president keeps this in mind, and presents us with a plan big and bold enough to include a way forward for today's college students. They deserve a future full of possibilities, not crippled by massive student debt.

Available on

The Best Business Schools' Admissions Secrets


Copyright © 2011 Arianna Huffington. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.





Back to School and Deeper in Debt