What Does the National Debt Mean for Students?

GDP and Up to Us team member, Nicolas Lopez, explains the national debt to a student in JCI as a part of their campaign.


America’s economy is a big part of the global market. So when the United States’ financial crisis happened in 2008, the whole world faced a recession. Yet, even as the U.S. has seen signs of recovery, with wage growth and millions of new jobs, one issue remains a cause for concern and confusion — our staggering $19 trillion national debt.

According to Philip Bump, a contributing writer for the Washington Post, “Debt has gone from a little over 60 percent of GDP to more than 100 percent — meaning our debt is now equal to our total economic production.”

But what does this mean for our country, and how does the national debt, which has nearly doubled since 2009, affect the lives of ordinary Americans, including college students, both now and in the future?

Economists often debate and disagree about the immediate and long-term impact of the national debt. The Nobel Prize Laureate Paul Krugman has even argued that the debt issue is being exaggerated.

“The U.S. economy has, on the whole, done pretty well these past 180 years, suggesting that having the government owe the private sector money might not be all that bad a thing,” Krugman wrote in an Aug. 21 column for The New York Times. “The British government, by the way, has been in debt for more than three centuries, an era spanning the Industrial Revolution, victory over Napoleon, and more.”

Nevertheless, deputy chief economist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, J.D. Foster, writes: “Recent and projected growth in U.S. government debt poses a serious hazard to the nation. At a minimum, high levels of government debt mean substantial government resources must go toward servicing debt — to pay interest.”

To help bring clarity to this issue and demystify what it means for students, Westminster’s Global Development and Progress club hosted a variety of campus-wide events this semester. The club held debates, diversity dialogues and budget simulations, as well as other sponsored events, as part of a nationwide competition called Up to Us, which raises awareness about the national debt.

During the entire campaign, our goal was to raise awareness about the national debt by being neutral and nonpartisan and providing important facts about the issue. While our events for this year’s campaign have come to a close, our voices should not.

So, whether you side with Krugman or with Foster, it is vital that we continue to have this conversation because the economic decisions that are made today will impact our lives in the future. It is imperative that our leaders make sure that the right investments are made in order to have a positive impact on our capacity to pay for our education, start a business, or earn a good living in the future. If we fail to have meaningful conversations like these, we would lose the opportunity to voice our concerns to our leaders, therefore influencing how we live.

What are your thoughts on the national debt? Please share your ideas with us in the comments.

Mustafe Elmi is a junior at Westminster College majoring in transnational studies and economics. He is the founding president of the Global Development and Progress club and is currently studying abroad at Jacobs University in Germany.

Ayush Manandhar is a junior at Westminster College majoring in transnational studies and economics. He is the founding vice president/interim president of the Global Development and Progress club and is the team leader for the Up to Us Westminster College team.

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