Congrats! You're in debt


Robert F. Smith did something earlier this month that surprised everyone — even the 162 people in America wealthier than he is.

He paid off student debt. Not his, but those of the nearly 400 graduating students at Morehouse College in Atlanta, a gift the Atlanta Journal-Constitution estimates to be $40 million.

It’s not a lot of money for someone worth billions, but for those 396 students, it’s eliminating more than $100,000 of college debt. Each.

Smith hopes each of these students will pay forward that generosity in the future. If they were to cure $1.5 trillion in debt, however, each of those graduates would have to hand out gifts of $3.7 billion.

Long gone are the days when college tuition was paid for by opening a savings account and working summer jobs. At least according to some published reports, tuition at a private school in the 1970s would cost $9,876, while in-state public schools would cost $2,175.

That’s the equivalent today of a little more than $58,000 for private school, and $13,000 in-state. It’s actually not too far off of what colleges charge today (Morehouse tuition is about $27,000 a year for that private school, while Manhattan College locally charges annual tuition of a little more than $40,000).

The big difference, however, is available money. In the 1970s, fewer than half of high school graduates went on to college. Today seven of every 10 graduates are moving on to college — and the pool of available grant money has not grown with it.

More than 40 years ago, 80 percent of college costs were covered by these grants. Today, according to USA Today, it’s half that.

That has forced many to turn to student loans, which inflict high interest rates compounded with laws that cap how much a graduated student has to pay back over a certain amount of time.

That means monthly payments a tenth of what they should be, and ultimately costing students double what they were originally charged.

There are lots of ideas out there, from what presidential candidates are proposing to New York’s Excelsior Scholarship.

But we need less talk on the federal level and more action. Because we only have one Robert F. Smith, and he can’t pay off everyone’s debt.