It's a tough set of cards to be dealt: a life-threatening virus, economic depression, a federal government that doesn't seem to care and, in many cases, too much student loan debt. On top of that, we're at a demographic pivot point, as the last of the millennial generation graduates from college and grad school, while the next cohort, Generation Z, is starting to graduate from high school. No matter how the sociologists view it, it's time to celebrate the successes of our young people graduating from high schools and colleges across the region. But we all must understand that they'll need all the grit they have built up to navigate this world.
It doesn't have to be so hard. As sweeping public policy changes seem to be in the offing, America should prioritize the fate of its young people.
Colleges and universities continue to raise tuition and will be under even more pressure to do so in the near future. And student loan debt does not qualify as a reason to declare bankruptcy; it can be a brutal trap. I know of at least a couple dozen struggling former students who are still trying to pay off their student loans. Some have been out of school for a decade or more. It's a scandal.
Having taught at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University for many years, while raising a millennial son myself, let me set things straight: Millennials are the best, the most dedicated and generally most thoughtful people I've ever worked with. Many of the problems we have today come from the aging baby boomers. Trust me on this.
Self-centeredness? Don't look at the millennials; it's the baby boomers who think that the world is their oyster. Wait a minute, you say, the boomers are the sons and daughters of the greatest generation, who fought the Nazis. How did they wind up so spoiled that they seem to only look out for themselves as their grandkids struggle?
To understand how much we have changed, consider the big public policy idea from the greatest generation — the GI Bill. Soldiers from World War II, Korea and Vietnam got the GI Bill when they came back. The public spending on the GI Bill was one of the best stimulus programs in American history — to earn it, you didn't necessarily have to go into combat. My brother served in the Vietnam War, but never left the base in Korea where he served his time breaking up bar fights. He took the money that the GI Bill sent his way to buy his first house; others used it for college or to start a business.
If our leaders want to spend some of the money they are throwing at this current economic problem in a productive, long-lasting way, they should dust off the GI Bill and consider how a template like that, applied to all young Americans, might give a little boost to those who need it most. Like a high school graduate from Spokane Valley not wanting to go into debt to attend college. Or a Gonzaga University graduate who might go on to seek a master's in virology, if only she could afford it. The GI Bill proves that if we invest in everyday Americans, they will repay our society by many multiples.
So, Class of 2020 — high school and college graduates — you face all of the above. And to the friends and families of those taking those first confident steps into the unknown? We all must support these young people however we can and never stand by as the deck is stacked against them in the kind of generational politics we see too often from our leaders.
Having taught your generation, I know what you're made of. And even as I look at the cards you have been dealt, my money's still on you. You will leave the world a better place. ♦
Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University.