Ewan Johnson’s college dreams nearly crashed down on him after just four days. The saga had started in the mid-2010s near the end of what by his own admission had been an unambitious time in high school. Then, his dreams were abruptly transformed by an unplanned trip across the Delaware River from working-class South Jersey to see Temple University in Philadelphia. It was as if someone had flipped on a light switch.
“This was my junior year of high school, and it was my first time on a college campus,” Johnson told me. “I remember driving down the main road and looking to the left and seeing all the college students sitting on the grass.” It was a striking vision of a future he hadn’t been focused on before that magical moment.
When I met him at Philadelphia’s upscale Rittenhouse Square, Johnson was 24. But he spoke, in a high-pitched voice, with the worldliness and brio of someone much older. His generational marker of blue jeans with a massive hole over his left knee was offset by a gold-plated wristwatch and his leather bag with the monogram “EWJ.”
After graduating from Rancocas Valley High School in his hometown of Mount Holly, N.J., with poor grades, Johnson spent a semester at a community college in Burlington County, N.J., where he became the student he’d never been in high school, acing his courses. Today he says: “If I knew what I knew now, I would have stayed in community college. Instead, one semester and I went to Temple, because my ambition was on Temple.”
Johnson filled out his Federal Student Aid form — the FAFSA — and qualified for the maximum federal Pell Grant as well as loan packages, on top of a merit scholarship that discounted his higher out-of-state tuition rate. He described his mindset as: “My mother was making $50,000 a year, so I’m going to make the financial aid I need to stay in Temple.” When he arrived on campus in the middle of the academic year, Temple placed Johnson where they had a residential spot — in Morgan Hall, a $215 million complex anchored by a 27-story high-rise with majestic skyline views of Center City Philadelphia, 42-inch flat-screen TVs in every suite, and a sleek, cosmopolitan facade.
The Temple freshman must have thought he was literally on top of the world — until that moment four days into the semester when he was contacted by the university financial office. Even when the Pell grant and his other financial aid was subtracted from his out-of-state tuition (at that time, more than $27,000 for a full academic year) and the cost of living in Temple’s most expensive dorm, Johnson was told that he owed $12,000 — money that neither he nor his mom, a single parent of two, had. He moved back home to Mount Holly, changed his status to part-time and — when he wasn’t getting up at 4:30 a.m. to make his trains for an 8 a.m. class — started working on a Plan B.
His mom, who worked for the state of New Jersey in disability services, was on board and went with him to meet with Temple officials. “I remember my mom started crying,” Johnson recalled, “and she was telling them, ‘He worked very hard to get here. I’ve never seen him work so hard for something. If he’s not here, I see him feeling diminished and not feeling the urge to come back, so what can we do to keep him here?’”
There was a way for Ewan to attend Temple full time on campus, as it turned out. It was a path that brought him to a bachelor’s degree, new ways of seeing the world and its politics — and $180,000 in debt for his family. Today, Ewan Johnson owes the government $30,000 while his mom owes $150,000 more through a controversial program called the Parent Plus loan. He says he’d rather go on strike than pay it back.
Johnson is now a young activist who has protested for President Joe Biden to cancel America’s whopping $1.75 trillion college debt. I met him during a long journalistic odyssey — trying not just to understand stories like his, shared by so many young Americans these days, but to answer some fundamental questions that have been gnawing at me during this nation’s fraught new millennium. First, how did college go from the American Dream of the decades after World War II to today’s overpriced nightmare — plunging dream-chasers like Ewan Johnson into deep debt while locking out millions more who were told that, because they lacked a diploma, they also lacked “merit” in a modern society?
Second, why did these changes in society blow up American politics? Why is the biggest determinant of who an American votes for in the 2020s whether or not they went to college — with Democrats increasingly the party of degree-bearing, “cosmopolitan” city and suburban voters, with Republicans the choice of a rural and Rust Belt non-diplomaed working class, mostly white but starting to attract blue-collar Latinos and other non-whites? And what is it about this new fault line — educational attainment — that makes our citizens so angry and resentful of each other that many talk of a new civil war?
To understand how college went off the rails and threatened to drag the American Experiment with it, I went back to when dreams of a better educated nation first jumped on the right track: 1944. The G.I. Bill — a hasty scheme, meant to occupy several million returning World War II vets with free university — shocked U.S. educators by proving that an upwardly mobile middle class was college material after all. The new dollars to build high-rise dorms, hire professors, and keep tuition so low (or free, in California and New York City) flowed right into the aspirations of the massive postwar baby boom that hit campus in the 1960s. It was the golden age of college in America.
It was also the high point of an idea: liberal education. Idealistic educators believed a curriculum that was more than rote career training — it also fostered civic virtue and critical thinking — would stave off the recent scourges of world war and fascism. But The Establishment of the 1960s freaked out when too many students applied that critical thinking to hypocrisy here at home, in the segregated South and over in Vietnam. Reactionary politicians led by California’s Ronald Reagan declared that “intellectual curiosity” on campus was no longer a public good to be supported by the taxpayer. College became a privatized burden, right at the moment a diploma became the ticket for staying in the middle class.
This backlash gave us today’s $1.75 trillion debt bomb, scammy for-profit colleges, and the need for public universities to build “lazy rivers” or gourmet food courts to attract rich and not-studious out-of-staters or foreigners on “the party track,” to balance their tax-starved budgets. I visited places like Knox County, Ohio, where the blue village of Gambier — liberal students and faculty at Kenyon College — is surrounded by a sea of Trumpian red, and ministers preaching fire and brimstone around January 6. I checked out the food pantry at Kutztown University, where working class students grab a box of mac and cheese to survive another week.
But I also went to a free trade school and a city program to get young adults off the schools-to-prison pipeline, because “the college problem” in America is really a much bigger issue of letting down all of our young people, in a land where only 37% currently hold a bachelor’s degree. Ewan Johnson and his family debt is one side of that coin. The tale of Georgie and Josh Redner, who were raised — and died — in the suburbs just north of Philadelphia is the other side.
A couple years after the morning when Jacqui Redner’s oldest son Georgie — a 27-year-old firefighter and paramedic — threw himself in front of a speeding Acela train on the busy line between New York and Philadelphia, and a short time after she and her husband found their next oldest son, Josh, also 27 at the time, dead in a local motel room, Redner started going through a mental list of Josh’s friends and classmates from Pennsbury High School just north of Philly.
Redner thought about a girl named Julie who was the first classmate to succumb to the opioid crisis, and then she remembered Josh’s wrestling teammate who also died from a drug overdose — as had the wrestler’s younger brother. Pennsbury is a sprawling school district across the densely populated suburbs of Bucks County, but as a mother of five boys, and wrapping up a six-year stint as school board president, Redner knew most of the 20-something kids and teens in the community.
She added up the many overdoses, and the multiple suicides. Her mental list kept growing until one day she’d realized she’d tallied over 100 young people from Pennsbury who hadn’t lived to see 30. Redner finally asked herself: “What is going on down here?”
She’s not the only one asking these questions. Most notably, two Princeton economists — Anne Case and Angus Deaton — launched a national conversation around the steep rise in suicide and deaths due to drug overdoses or alcohol abuse among the mostly white working class, which they’ve labelled “deaths of despair.” In 2020, Case and Deaton said that deaths are rising among younger people — like Georgie and Josh Redner and their classmates — who lack a college degree.
Deaton has argued the crisis is less a matter of economics and more about the status of those left behind in a dog-eat-dog meritocracy. “It has to be this long-term drip of losing opportunities and losing meaning and structure in life,” the economist said.
Jacqui Redner told me that Josh, the second of her five boys, lost his focus after a serious wrestling injury his senior year cost him an athletic scholarship to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Instead, his doctors prescribed him the painkiller Percocet, triggering a downward spiral of addiction that dominated the last 10 years of his life. His parents would ultimately find him dead of a heroin overdose. He’d stuck a knife in the wall of his lower Bucks motel room and hung his crosses from it. Next to his bedside was a picture of his older brother Georgie, who’d died by suicide two years earlier.
Georgie’s parents believe their oldest son developed PTSD which morphed into depression during the long years he worked to establish credentials as a firefighter, including grueling 24-hour rescue shifts for low pay. The drowning death of a 2-year-old girl in a swimming pool during one of those shifts seemed a trigger, but despite his stays in psychiatric wards, Jacqui remains perplexed by his death.
“I never would have thought Georgie ... he was the life of the party. He made everybody laugh. And he jumped in front of a train,” she said, her voice soaked with bewilderment. “What possessed him to do that?”
In the weeks immediately after Josh’s death, Jacqui Redner used her then-perch as school board chair in Pennsbury to push through a groundbreaking, districtwide drug intervention program, and she continues to promote awareness of PTSD among firefighters. She’s not alone in seeking to change the raw deal that America has given its young people, after an era of opportunities like the G.I. Bill slowly unraveled.
In Philadelphia, Ewan Johnson became a top activist within the Debt Collective, a group that arose from the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests and today is aggressively lobbying President Biden to cancel all the $1.75 trillion in student debt. Biden is expected to make a decision in the next month.
Johnson truly got the full college experience at Temple, including a semester in Italy where he geeked out on the architecture and became close to fluent in the language as he moved with gusto toward his goal of becoming the first in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree. But he also would come to realize that his success had a price.
“It wasn’t until my second semester of my first school year that I realized I was incurring a lot of debt and ... I think what’s real, and what I can name is that in that moment I felt I was in between a rock and a hard place because there was no way out,” Johnson recalled. In other words, even as his debt was accumulating rapidly, he knew that his only hope to ever repay the money was to complete his studies, get a diploma, and then get a job that paid well enough to make his loan payments. If he’d dropped out, he’d still have a large debt — but no hope of paying it back.
After graduating into the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson found his footing through activism — first in the George Floyd protest marches, then with a Philadelphia homeless encampment that led to a paying gig as a housing organizer. He recently took a similar job in New York, and he’s said that if Biden resumes loan repayments in September — after a two-year pandemic freeze — he’ll join a nationwide debt strike.
“I think a lot of people are being radicalized, and you know our government hates it when people are radicalized — but it’s necessary change,” he told me of his political philosophy, forged by his experiences with college debt, the pandemic, and social injustice.
It didn’t have to get to this point. It took a couple of generations of bad decisions by bad leaders to take America from where things stood in mid-20th century — when universal college opportunity nearly became a public good, just like K-12 schooling — to today’s mess that resembles a kind of all-or-nothing "Hunger Games" for 18-year-olds forced to make difficult life choices at a tender age.
The struggle to turn this around — to make public college free or nearly free, to forgive the debts of a generation sold a bill of goods, to offer free trade school or other opportunities to the millions not interested in campus life — will also take generations, but we have to start. This is America’s real college debt — what we owe these younger generations who we let down.