Once upon a time, there was country where more people earned a healthy living wage than not, where the term “billionaire” wasn’t familiar and millionaires were rather rare. In this country, citizens and leaders advocated investing in human capital. Parents would stash away portions of their paychecks every month to save for their children’s future educations. Many children would complete their high school educations and go off to college, where tuition was considered affordable, and many would graduate with master’s degrees with no more than a few thousand dollars’ worth of debt and jobs already lined up. This was a country with a healthy middle class, and debt was associated mostly with car and home loans. Unfortunately, this country seems to have fallen off the map.

As it stands today, America has shifted gears dramatically, steering away from enriching its young adults with opportunities and toward practically enslaving them with debt to pave the way for their own futures. In a recent analysis released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, student loan debt stands at $870 billion nationally with 27 percent of all borrowers delinquent in repayment. The average student debt hovers around $23,300. The total student loan debt surpasses the country’s outstanding auto loan debt (at $730 billion) and credit card debt (at $693 billion).

At $870 billion, one might think that money would be put to good use, and that young adults would be getting a return on their investment. There’s some good news: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate hovers around 4 percent for college graduates with bachelor’s degrees, less than half of the nation’s overall unemployment rate. Class of 2011 college graduates also landed higher-paying jobs last year than the year before and were also paid better than those without an education, according to survey conducted earlier this year by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Despite these positives, young adults are dealing with tough times.

A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed that the consensus of the public at large is that young adults are the ones having the toughest time in today’s economy and have it harder than their parents did. The fact of the matter is that although college grads are now making more than they did last year, they are making less money in comparison to college graduates of 10 years ago. The U.S. Department of Education reported that men were averaging $56,100 in 2000; in 2009 it was $51,000. For women, the average was $43,600 compared to $40,100. Overall, however, combining diminishing salaries for college grads with the rising cost of living, from home prices to gas prices, plus skyrocketing college tuition, young adults deciding on whether to invest in higher education may not think it is worth the price tag. For those who opt for higher education, debt-saddled graduates are often forced to move home, affecting the economy. For too many students, student loan debt comes before major purchases, including a car, a house. Some even struggle to save for a deposit on an apartment.

As the student loan debt continues to grow quarterly, we must realign the core values that made this country strong decades ago.  Though young adults are currently facing grimmer realties than their parents did, it’s not too late to turn this ship around and focus on affordable education that results in higher-paying jobs and a relatively low unemployment rate. Education is a proven cure for unemployment and even crime — let’s not punish young adults with lifelong student debt just for wanting a better future.