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Student Debt and the Passion of a Lost Generation

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Student debt can be a crushing burden. Decisions one makes as a youth can potentially weigh down an entire life. Often, students are told by parents, teachers, and university professors to pursue what they love, that passion is more important than money. And in the walls of a university, this is an appealing argument. Outside school, too, this should be the driving force of one’s life.

If you were a college student in the past 10 years or so, and are middle-class or lower, you probably took out student loans to pay for that degree. And if one loves books, or art history, or 13th century religious iconography, following that advice with passion will cause problems when you have to pay off those student loans. When you graduate, excited about the world and its opportunities, do something big and interesting. Because after that, you might find that the world doesn’t want to pay you, or at least not very much, to pursue your passion.

This is our own fault. Believe it or not TRC does believe strongly in personal responsibility. If you took out a 100K in student loans, you are responsible to the institution which borrowed you that money. It must be paid back, even if, at 25 years old, you realize that you made a terrible decision at 17, and will pay for it for the remainder of your adult life. Alas. These are the rules, which, even when soul-crushing, are still the rules.

The US is in an a difficult place regarding student debt, and it could have serious consequences. The nation now carries more student loan debt than it does credit card debt. The costs of tuition have been rising at staggering rates, and show no signs of tapering off, and in the meantime wages for graduates are decreasing. Student debt, it is being said, could drag this economic recession on and on, and leave a generation of college students unemployable. By year’s end, a projected $1 trillion in student loans will be outstanding in the United States. A trillion dollars. How is repayment going?

 Barely more than a third of loan holders are actively paying down their debts, indicating that the burden may be too much for many. What effect will the ballooning student debt load have on the economy in the long term? According to Alan Nasser, professor emeritus of political economy at Evergreen State University, the American dream is about to become the American nightmare.

That doesn’t sound good. Too many people are having too hard a time surviving and one cause of the difficulty is simply that middle-class kids did what they were told middle-class kids do: go to college. College is a benefit, and it should be encouraged. The college years are the best years of one’s life (they really were), and the intellectual pursuit is among the greatest endeavors of human existence (truly). It is not culture or society’s fault that millions of young, highly educated people are unable to get a job. But culture is not guilt free, either. There is plenty of responsibility for this $1 trillion dollars. The question should be, what are we going to do about it so it does not erase a generation?

Who knows. Are there any viable solutions? At Occupy Wall Street there is a growing cry for student debt relief. There is an argument to be made for debt forgiveness: if we forgive the crushing debt burden, individuals will have money to spend on goods and services rather than sending their money (or not sending money, as the case may be) to pay off interest on student debt. Mrs. TRC and I have discussed this. We are doing well in comparison, working and able to meet our payments. But if we didn’t have to make the monthly student loan payment we would immediately: buy a car, buy a computer, re-do our kitchen floor. Would it help if we opened up what little capital is available to Americans and allowed them to direct that money towards economic recovery? It seems reasonable, but I’m not economist.

Either way, that’s not likely. And no one should be surprised that our government does not forgive a trillion dollars in debt to its own citizens. It’s not our style, and it may not be the best solution anyway. A strong argument against simple debt-relief is that it is unfair to people to worked tooth-and-nail to pay their education off and did not accrue debt. This person, the argument goes, did not need a private school education, and found a way to pay for it without loans. That is true, and that individual deserves the praise of our society; that person is a role-model. I think there are too few of those individuals; I wish I had been one.

Another plan is out today from President Obama to help ease the burden of student loans. The President’s plan “allows borrowers to cap their loan payments at 10 percent of their income, a significant reduction from the 15 percent cap in current law. And the plan would allow for loan forgiveness on a remaining balance after 20 years of payments.” Pay 10% of your income for 20 years, and the rest is forgiven. That seems generous. Whether it will work or be welcomed remains to be seen.

There is also a third option that TRC has thought of lately, and it’s terrifying, but no less realistic. It is said that if you do not find a job within five years of graduation, the odds of ever working into the competitive position you could have decrease significantly (I heard this on MPR, and am looking for the source). That is going to be a lot of students in the wake of this recession. And it will not be just liberal arts majors who want to be curators or book-store owners, but law students and scientists, and individuals from every field with graduate degrees, and thus more loans, because why look for a job when there are none? Better to keep learning and acquiring degrees to be more competitive when jobs come back. One may disagree with this line of thinking, but it is not uncommon and results in a lot of MAs, MSs, PhDs, JDs, etc.

Millions, probably. And the vision of these over-burdened and underemployed college graduates making coffee around the nation will eventually, finally, demonstrate what people around the country have known for a long time: the university system needs to change. The system cannot be: take out loans to go to school to get a job to pay off the loans you needed to go to school. That is a heartless cycle, and will destroy too many people in its wake.

Or we’ll just stop attending higher-education. The US will continue to run colleges and universities that compete with the best institutions in the world and continue to increase tuition to meet costs, but Americans will not attend those schools, at least not the majority of Americans. And this would be a loss of monumental proportions. Learning what you are passionate about, like your teachers said, is what college is for, and learning how to follow that passion for the rest of your life should take priority over monthly interest payments.


Written by Christopher ZF

October 26, 2011 at 11:02

4 Responses

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  1. It’s definitely a tough situation. Obviously, livelihood is not guaranteed in living out one’s passion– thems the facts. That shouldn’t discourage people from pursuing their passions in different, less economically burdening ways than college. Or, hopefully people learn to accept the total cost of formal education in one’s passion is still worth it. Sadly, a primary reason why young people have so much student debt is that it was so readily available, just like in the housing bubble. Obviously, when people have easier access to credit, the price of the financed good or service rises. Unfortunately, the average colllege tuition exploded as both the federal government and private banks sourced “cheap” money into the system, and higher learning institutions responded by bloating their adminstrations.


    October 26, 2011 at 17:21

    • That’s all true, Brandon, and there’s nothing I can dispute. Although we might disagree about whether livelihood and passion should be as exclusive as they are.

      But I also don’t think these pieces information do anything to move towards solving the problems that are currently beset upon too many individuals: they have far more debt than they can pay. On a small scale that problem can be handled, but on the scale that it currently exists, the potential consequences of having so many people out of the job market with the amount of debt they hold could be disastrous. Regardless of how the problem arose, the problem needs to be addressed. For the good of the entire economy.


      October 26, 2011 at 17:29

  2. Well, as someone who is striving to find the intersection of my own passions and a potential livelihood, I don’t think they should be as exclusive as they are either. That said, one cannot expect that everybody graduating with say, a critical gender theory degree these days will be able to find work in that particular field. As a history major, I’m all for a humanities education and think it is very valuable, but academic-type degrees might not prepare one for lifetime of work in his/her passion. Of course, each case is different and it’s hard to generalize when we’re talking about something as important and personal as vocation. However, the truth is that there are a lot of highly skilled and high paying technical jobs in this country available right now that we can’t fill, in part because of our educational focus– we haven’t qualified people to take those jobs. Again, it’s not necessarily bad that people studied what was interesting to them, but such job prospects come with the territory.
    I’m all for policy that props up the good of the entire economy, and we should do what we can within certain parameters. Unfortunately, there seems to be a dearth of good ideas (and The Chonicle of Higher Education and the Atlantic have pieces today that assert President Obama’s plan will have little to no impact at all in solving the problem). But the economy cannot be the only consideration here. I say this with trepidation– I remember my own dark time being unemployed, with the specter of $90k in student debt coming due– but I think we are too fixated on utility and material conditions when talking policy. What about the spiritual and moral consequences of bailing people out, of softening consequences of individual choices (which I’m afraid is not dignifying to such people), of sending a message to others who worked harder to avoid school debt that you didn’t necessarily to have to be that responsibile? Of course there is an element of: well, we were just doing what society told us– go into debt and get an education– at play here, and I honestly don’t mean to be flippant. But we need to weigh the spiritual cost before we take actions that make sense from a purely economic standpoint.


    October 27, 2011 at 13:50

    • A few responses, Brandon.
      It’s terribly unfortunate that we have high paying, high skill positions available that American’s can’t fill. That’s true and says something about our country and our educational system.

      I don’t think that one should be able to major in any random field, graduate, and expect an entry level job at 37k/year. But those high skill, high paying jobs are in fields that aren’t particularly popular, they are generally technical/math/science backgrounds, areas of study that have been on the decline in the US for the past few decades. I don’t have a solution for you on this. But interests are to be pursued, and economics shouldn’t put undue burden on individuals because of what they love.

      We also have a lot of low skill jobs that pay pretty well and can’t fill either, such as trucking and transportation industry jobs. Many trucking companies are paying for training and starting drivers at 65-70K and can’t find anyone who wants to take the job. So it is not just a problem of high skill jobs.

      I get the policy distinction that you are getting at, and have little to argue. But I do think the spiritual consequences you are talking about are quite far afield from my own. I think there is a true danger that an era of despair could take over the middle-class (if it hasn’t already), which is largely caused by economics, among other things. That we as a nation can support policies–whether you or I personally agree, we as a nation did in fact–bail out a financial industry that absolutely screwed individual American lives, but oppose policies to bail out people who are in trouble, is very troubling to me. I do truly believe in personal responsibility, and I don’t think anyone who took out loans should expect to have the government repay their loans (by the way I think loan forgiveness is in no way possible or conceivable in this country). But the government should make policies that are going to benefit the economy, and benefit the citizens. Spiritual considerations are not policy considerations.

      And, for the record, if I were to make policy considerations on spiritual costs (whatever that means) I would immediately forgive student debt and let everyone keep their homes, and relieve the spiritual despair millions of people who are suffering, regardless of how that suffering occurred. Why should we only ease the suffering of people if we think the cause of suffering is from the right kind of causes? All suffering should be resolved. Which is why policy is not the place to resolve our spiritual dilemmas.


      October 27, 2011 at 19:35

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