Better UTAH Beat Episode 54 – July 2, 2013

Independence Day has been an important American Holiday for hundreds of years. But it didn’t get really interesting as a federal holiday until 1826, the Jubilee year of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. That 50 year celebration was accentuated for the young nation by the deaths, within hours of each other, of two of America’s most famous Founding Fathers and fastest friends: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

Jefferson and Adams were the last members of the founding generation, so their deaths signified a turning point for many Americans. Adams was 90, Jefferson was 82. Adams last words were reported to be, “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” even though, unbeknownst to Adams, Jefferson had preceded him in death just a few hours earlier.

Adams, in a way, was right though. Out of all the Founding Fathers, there is a sense in which Jefferson’s legacy is one of the strongest survivors. With the exception of the religious right that, considering Jefferson’s agnosticism, has basically written him off, Jefferson is used by both liberals and conservatives to support their respective arguments.

Part of Jefferson’s legacy is our system of public education. In fact, on his grave marker he chose to claim credit for only three things: the Declaration of Independence, the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and the founding of the University of Virginia.

Education was important for Jefferson for the quality of upward mobility that it afforded the young United States. He saw education as a way of creating a meritocracy–a society in which people are rewarded based on the value of their individual contributions–rather than an aristocracy–a society in which people are rewarded based on their birthright. For Jefferson, universal and free education was the necessary prerequisite to avoid recreating the class-based system that existed in Europe.

But today the ideal of free and open education is under assault, and in no more apparent place than in the debate over student loan debt. In the United States, student loan debt is nearing a total of 1 trillion dollars. That’s a one followed by 12 zeroes. To put that into perspective, by paraphrasing Ronald Reagan of all people, if you stacked a trillion dollars worth of 1,000 dollar bills atop one another, that pile of cash would be 67 miles high.

We have a problem.

Utah fares a little better than the national average when it comes to student loan debt, but we’re far from perfect. Nationally, the average student loan debt is about 24,000 dollars. In Utah, the average debt burden is just over 17,000 dollars. That much debt means young adults are holding off on other important decisions, like marriage, purchasing a home, and buying a car.

Though student loan debt, on its surface, seems like just a debt problem, it’s actually a problem that will likely have broad social consequences. From eliminating our ability to compete with countries like China and India, to decreasing opportunities for the shrinking middle class, the problem of student loan debt is fast approaching a crisis in this country. Still, Congress refuses to act, the result of which was the doubling of student loan interest rates yesterday, from 3.4% to 6.8%.

College, as Jefferson saw hundreds of years ago, should be attainable by all Americans, regardless of their socioeconomic status. As we near the celebration of our national independence, access to education should be at the top of our radar. The alternative is eliminating the middle class, but an Independence Day without a thriving middle class really wouldn’t be much to celebrate.

Be safe this weekend and have a very Happy Fourth of July.

This is Maryann Martindale with this week’s edition of the Better UTAH Beat.

Have a great week, and remember, together, we can make a better Utah.

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