President Obama delivered a tongue-lashing commencement address to students at Howard University last weekend, saying many things with which I agreed. Opposing views should not be shut out and freedom of speech on college campuses must be protected.
However, as the father of a soon-to-be college student, Obama missed a major problem that many Howard graduates and grads around the country face. When he talked about how college students today have it better than previous generations, he didn’t acknowledge that many students graduate with substantial debt, only to enter a stagnant economy that holds limited opportunities for well-paying jobs.
The class of 2016 holds the distinction of graduating with the highest average debt burden in history. An estimated seven-in-ten graduates will walk away with roughly $37,172 in student loans as they enter the workforce. They beat the Class of 2015, which owed over $35,000 on average. Black young adults carry a greater student debt burden than their peers and black, first-generation college graduates are especially prone to incurring student debt.
How will young people afford to repay that debt? This would be less of a challenge in a robust economy growing faster than the currently meager 0.5 percent growth rate. With that harsh reality in mind, it’s no surprise that the millennial joblessness rate stood at 12.7, according to my organization’s Millennial Jobs Report. And millions of young workers are part of the 6 million Americans who find themselves no choice other than to work part-time when they would prefer full-time work.
Even those with jobs have their own struggles. The median national salary for recent graduates with a bachelor’s degree is $43,000. Yet that number doesn’t represent an improvement over recent years. The real wages of young college graduates are 2.5 percent lower today than they were in 2000, while for high school graduates they’re 5.5 percent lower.
The compounded impact of these unfavorable conditions is that our generation experiences higher levels of poverty than those before us. One-in-five young adults live in poverty (13.5 million people), compared to one-in-seven in 1980.
It’s not all doom and gloom—graduates with degrees in STEM fields have the best prospects of finding high-paying jobs right out of college. Computer science majors have a projected starting salary of $61,321, while math and science majors can expect their pay to average $55,087.
Yet whether they are beating the national average or straddling the poverty line, most young workers will find their income stretched, particularly by their debt payments. Baby Boomer and Gen X parents looked forward to the independence of adulthood, yet they didn’t have nearly as much student loan debt to contend with as today’s graduates.
Millennials should start fighting their debt and joblessness by making the most of the on-demand economy. As represented by services like Uber, AirBnB, and TaskRabbit, this thriving new set of work opportunities offers millennials a chance to use their time and resources to earn extra cash or even a full income. Along with that comes the freedom and flexibility of making your own hours, choosing which projects you take on, and the mobility to work almost anywhere you choose.
Millennials should also make the most of their entrepreneurial ambitions. Starting their own business is a goal for 67 percent of millennials, and they are discovering entrepreneurship significantly earlier than other generations. The average millennial embraces an entrepreneurial opportunity at 27, compared with Baby Boomers who launched their first businesses at 35, on average.
To make sure young people can obtain the skills and experience they need to take advantage of that entrepreneurial spirit, we must push for expanded choice and lower cost in higher education. First, let’s scale back the federal government’s excessive subsidies, including government-backed student loans, as they inflate the price of college. Colleges and universities have no reason to control costs when they know they have a guaranteed pipeline of cash from Washington.
Second, federal interference in higher education limits choice and shuts out innovative educational programs from providing better, less expensive alternatives. Accreditation agencies, which grant universities and other education programs their seal of approval along with the ability to receive federal student aid, are nominally please rivate, many of their standards are controlled by the federal government. Let’s move accreditation power from Washington to states and give them the flexibility to authorize everything from apprenticeships to online courses of study, giving students access to a wider range of possibilities than the standard—and currently very costly—degree path.
Those graduating this year should indeed take President Obama’s message to heart—in many ways, our world is a lot better than that of the generations before us. But every generation still has its challenges, and dealing with student loan debt and an economy that isn’t functioning at full steam is one of ours. Fortunately, this generation is up to the challenge.