Every eighteen months or so, a new student loan study or article or opinion piece makes the rounds online, in print, and then usually capped by a segment on the Today Show or similar broadcast outlet. These pieces, relevant to my own interests, tend to start with an anecdote talking about a liberal arts grad living at home for years after graduation unable to get a job in his/her field. Usually that field is something like philosophy, and the school is an expensive four-year east coast private school — but there are plenty of variations on this theme. In the last few years, the angle has shifted from reporting on these unlucky liberal arts grads to professionals who dodged the flailing economy by borrowing to work toward a Master’s Degree, teaching certificate, or other professional certification to improve their chances of employment. Often, these advanced degrees didn’t help, leaving skilled, educated and trained professionals worse off financially than before their continued education. Most of these articles compare the current state of the student loan market to the housing crisis with an increasing sense of urgency. Two years ago, there was a “Student Loan Bubble” but now there’s a Student Loan Debt Crisis.
Another thing that nearly all of these pieces have in common, at least, those published online: below the article is a string of commenters wondering how students “could be so stupid” as to take out a mortgage-sized loan for an undergraduate degree. The comments are filled with stories of people who financed their own educations, chose a lower-priced college instead of a big name university, or chose a different path entirely. According to this crowd-think, people stuck and struggling with student loans made their own beds by making the wrong choices and acting irresponsibly.
Nearly nine years post-undergrad, I am still carrying just under $80,000 in student debt... for a bachelor’s degree in journalism from a private university in New York City. I am, quite literally, the person these commenters love to hate. Yes, I chose my school. Yes, I saw the tuition bill. No, eighteen-year-old me did not understand the real-life implications of said bill. And I battle frustration every time a writer, or publication, or non-profit conducting a study tries to start an intelligent conversation about changes in policy that could prevent this cycle from spinning wildly out of control — only to have the conversation shut down by others who made “smarter choices” than those of us who borrowed a lot of money to go to school.
I was born on the cusp of Generation X and the in-the-spotlight Millennial generations. We are accused of being detached from reality; having parents and teachers that coddled us and told us we “can be anything we want to be,” even if that $100,000 philosophy degree isn’t the most marketable. We are accused of not wanting to put in hard work to get a reward, and expecting too much too soon.
I signed my loan documents when I was eighteen years old. Comparatively, I was lucky; my mom’s good credit meant that having her cosign for my private loan (after quickly exhausting federal loans) landed me a fair, non-variable rate. Financial aid? As a child of divorce with two solidly middle class parents, I didn’t qualify. Both parents’ incomes count when making financial aid calculations, but two separate mortgages, car payments, and other expenses that come from being a head of household do not. Universities that allow (or even encourage, as mine did) their students to take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans should explain to the student and the families exactly what a $90,000 private loan with a 4.3 percent interest rate will look like over twenty years. And the difference between how an English degree versus a business degree versus an engineering degree will set you up for future on-time-payment success.
The current administration has done more than those before to help students repay loans with programs like income-based repayment — but these programs apply only to Federal loans. Private loans can carry variable interest rates and abbreviated repayment schedules that can easily climb to a recent graduate’s largest expense. (My share of my first New York apartment was a monthly $775; my private student loan payment was $672.) And these mortgage-sized loans can not be dismissed in bankruptcy; a practice that makes reasonable sense but still leaves debt-saddled grads with diminishing hope.
I have been paying my loans for close to ten years and will continue to pay them until they are gone, in the year 2024. I am grateful for my education and college experience and for what I have been able to accomplish because of both. My life would be completely different without the opportunity to attend school when I did, studying what I studied, and joining the workforce upon graduation. I hate shelling out $700 monthly for an education that seems so long ago, but I know why I must continue to do so.
Mostly, I’m happy people are talking about this. It took years after graduation for me to find a peer in my situation, willing to admit how hopeless it feels. I wore my debt like a stigma, and panicked a lot. I worried it would affect my future relationships, my future employment, my future as a happy and successful member of society. I am happy to see the beginnings of an open and honest conversation.
But if history is any indicator, as this news cycle fades and is replaced by the next, we’ll stop talking about student debt and student loan reform. Instead, as the next reports surface about Americans struggling to pay off their expensive educations, some of us will empathize, while others point fingers. This conversation must continue, but expand to include real solutions that will change the status quo, giving those of us carrying debt a light at the end of a very long and often very dark tunnel. I don’t know how to fix it, and I know how lucky I am to be in a situation where I can afford to pay my loans. But instead of writing and reading about the near out-of-control student loan situation in the US, I wish we were writing and reading about real ways to affect change and create a future less burdened by this damaging, crushing student debt.