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‘We have not done a good job of telling everyone how important higher education is’ — David A. Armstong president of St. Thomas University

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David A. Armstrong, president of St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Fla., speaks Oct. 18, 2022, at a banquet in Fort Lauderdale following the 31st annual Red Mass sponsored by the St. Thomas More Society of South Florida. (CNS photo/Tom Tracy, Florida Catholic)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — While the U.S. seems divided over a national plan for student loan debt forgiveness, a Catholic university president said that private education produces less student loan debt on average than public colleges.

And higher education is still a proven path for success, said David A. Armstrong, president of St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens. The university is run by the Miami Archdiocese.

“For the first time in our country’s history, education is being challenged from both sides of the aisles — the media, the politicians are saying that people don’t get a good return on their investment for education,” he added.

Armstrong spoke to legal professionals from Broward County, Florida, at a dinner following the 31st annual Red Mass celebrated Oct. 18 at St. Anthony Church in Fort Lauderdale.

Hosted by the St. Thomas More Society of South Florida, the Mass was celebrated by Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami with a number of local clergy as concelebrants.

The Mass seeks God’s blessings on those involved in the administration of justice and those who work in public service. The name stems from the red vestments of the presiding clergy.

“As a president of a university, we have not done a good job of telling everyone how important higher education is,” Armstrong told the gathering.

But the statistics don’t lie.

“To this day, the best investment anyone can make in their life … is to earn a college degree. They will earn more (income) over their lifetime, but we tend to forget that because there is this mythical person who works at Starbucks who owes $200,000 in school loans,” he said.

“No one has ever shown me who that person is, and I have never seen a name. At the private schools around this country, the average debt is $19,000 and it’s $21,000 if they went to a state school,” Armstrong added.

President Joe Biden’s plan would cancel up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt for recipients of a Pell Grant, provided to qualifying low- and middle-income students, and $10,000 for other borrowers, as long as they earn no more than $125,000 a year or are part of a household where total earnings are no more than $250,000.

The plan only applies to federal loans, not those held by private institutions.

Although the Biden administration is accepting applications from borrowers for the debt relief, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a temporary halt to the program Oct. 21.

The U.S. Supreme Court already rejected one lawsuit seeking an emergency block on the program and a second suit is asking the high court to stop it.

Biden enacted the debt relief plan under the HEROES Act, which was passed after the 9/11 attacks sparked an American-led military campaign aimed at terrorism.

The act gives the Executive Branch authority to forgive student loan debt in association with military operations or national emergencies. The Biden administration has asserted the law allows loan forgiveness for Americans dealing with financial hardship because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to making the case for higher education, Armstrong made a detailed case that the values and moral code drawn from the life of St. Thomas More were still relevant for the modern world.

The saint, who was the chancellor of England and a skilled jurist, was a martyr for religious liberty and conscience rights.

Armstrong began his first year at St. Thomas University in August 2018. He is credited with launching a football and marching band program at the university, completing construction of the Gus Machado School of Business, beginning an ethical leadership programĀ and raising more than $10.8 million for the school.

Prior to coming to Miami, he worked at Thomas More University, a Catholic liberal arts school in the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, where he was president since 2013.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Armstrong holds a law degree from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and a bachelor of arts in political science, with a minor in accounting, from Mercyhurst University.

Local attorney John Seiler, who introduced Armstrong at the dinner, credited him and St. Thomas University for creating the first such Institute for Ethical Leadership in the state of Florida.

Seiler said beginning the institute was foremost among the reasons Armstrong had been invited to speak to the St. Thomas More’s Society annual gathering. The institute offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in ethical leadership.

Founded in 1989, the St. Thomas More Society is a Catholic association of South Florida’s legal community — including lawyers, judges, public officials and other legal professionals — dedicated to advancing the principles of its namesake.

Seiler credited Armstrong for helping to ensure that faith-based colleges and universities “have not just survived but they have thrived … in this very tough environment.”

“During his tenure, St. Thomas University has had four straight years of record enrollment. They have set fundraising records year after year and just witnessed the construction of 400,000 square feet of campus facilities right there in Miami Gardens,” Seiler said.

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