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What’s Really at Stake in the Fight Over Student Loan Reform? | Commentary

For the first time in history, Americans owe more in student debt than they owe on their credit card bills. For a new graduate, that burden means sacrificing dreams, such as embarking on a difficult career that requires more schooling, opening a business or even starting a family.

As a physician, I regularly work with students applying to medical school and witness this struggle firsthand. One of the first questions I ask isn’t “What made you decide you want to be a doctor?” or even “Which medical schools are you considering?” Of necessity, my first question is often: “Can you get a scholarship?” The answer is usually, “No.”

If achieving their dream involves incurring a $250,000 debt, it’s hard not to discourage even the most promising of prospective physicians from signing up for years — if not a lifetime — of debt-fueled indentured servitude, especially if they hope to go into primary care.

The consequences of the massive amounts of debt we’re asking students to take on don’t end at dreams deferred. A recent report from the New York Federal Reserve found that people with student loan debt were less likely to be homeowners before the age of 30 and were less likely to purchase a vehicle than previous generations.

Student loan debt, which has tripled since 2004, is even deterring many of the “first global” generation from getting married and having children. Moreover, 41 percent of those struggling with student debt say that loan payments have forced them to postpone contributions to retirement accounts. Today’s student debt loads are a threat to the already precarious retirement security of Americans for decades to come.

If those personal tragedies and limitations weren’t enough to demand action, the societal implications of rising student debt are equally alarming. In addition to dissuading many from even applying to medical school in the first place, the mounting student debt load for medical students has the unintended result of pushing many young doctors into pursuing more lucrative practices such as cardiology or orthopedic surgery. Of course, this comes at precisely the moment when our country is facing a massive shortage of the gerontologists and primary-care physicians we need to deal with aging boomers.

And doctoring isn’t the only field losing out on talented young first globals, thanks to the long-term costs of crushing student debt. Recently, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that the low salary and high debt load are increasingly turning teaching into an impractical career, despite how important education is to improving the nation’s long-term economic prospects. And anyone in government can tell you the story of the plucky intern who, after realizing how much education was needed and how little compensation could be expected, decided to forgo public service for a career of selling derivatives on Wall Street.

While undervaluing the socially valuable professions is hardly a new phenomenon, the mounting national student debt load has turned a perennial problem into an all-out crisis that is eroding the professional infrastructure we need for future generations to succeed.

Yet, on July 1, this bad situation is set to get even worse. If Congress fails to act, federal student loan rates will double, simultaneously increasing the burden on young people and continuing to hamper the future growth of our economy.

The student loan program was originally designed to invest in what all politicians say they care about: our human capital. Congress ought to empower young Americans to follow their passions and be the future leaders of our country. Instead, they bury our young in debt while giving tax breaks to the financial service industry that came close to wrecking the world’s economy with irresponsible financial practices.

So far, Congress has failed miserably to take necessary action in a timely manner. Just last week, Senate Republicans and Democrats both were unable to move forward legislation that would do the bare minimum to stop the slow-motion July 1 catastrophe.

This failure to act just 24 days before that deadline is deeply troubling, but it also gives Democrats another chance to push for something bigger. I am proud to join Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and hundreds of thousands of progressives from Democracy for America and other national organizations in calling on Congress to pass Warren’s bold proposal, which gives our students the same low interest rates that our government grants to the banking industry for its day-to-day needs. Surely our students are far more valuable for America’s future.

Howard Dean is the former governor of Vermont, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and the founder of Democracy for America.

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