Student debt big issue, solvable
Editor’s Note: Views expressed in guest columns and letters to the editor reflect the views of the author, not the views of The State News.
I love the financial crisis. Well, not “love” it, since it caused millions of Americans to lose their homes, ground economies to a halt on not one but two continents and is part of the reason I and thousands of other graduating seniors can’t find a well-paying job. However, I believe it’s one of the most interesting narratives ever.
It has victims who should share in some of the blame: the American people. It has villains the world can’t do without: the big banks. Victims and villains alike have an ally they despise and require in equal measure: the federal government.
It’s a great story, but it’s one that’s killing me and other college students around the country. It’s limiting the options we have for paying for college, diverting us into majors that aren’t necessarily our passion and hurting our ability to move forward fiscally after graduation.
Right now, there’s a student debt bubble. For the first time ever, the outstanding student loans in America will total north of one trillion. That’s trillion, with a “T.” Students like myself are graduating from college with an average of $25,000 in debt, which is one of many factors dragging our national economy into the depths of Gehenna.
The world has seen what happens when youth is maligned. A young man lit himself on fire in Tunisia and sparked revolution throughout the Middle East. The Occupy movement was a constant show of displeasure for a government that young people had lost confidence in. British students rioted in the streets after Parliament passed a bill tripling university tuition.
The student debt bubble affects so many other areas of American life — jobs, health care, the social safety net — and it’s going to be the next “big” issue.
After the bursting of the housing bubble and subsequent financial crisis, the narrative was easy to formulate: Silly Americans, who, according to the Census Bureau, spend $1.33 for every dollar they make, got caught up in the “American dream” and bought houses they couldn’t afford. When the teaser rates on their mortgages ended and they figured out they couldn’t pay for the house, people stopped paying their mortgages. This makes the homeowner the bad guy.
The narrative for when — not if, when — the student debt bubble bursts probably will go along the lines of, “Silly kids, trying to pay for an education they knew they couldn’t afford in a job market they knew was weak. Make ‘em pay.”
As a student, it’s frustrating to be blamed. In response, I could complain about how journalism’s inability to get its collective act together and embrace the best of the past and future of media is hurting employment prospects.
I could point to Stephen Marche’s excellent Esquire piece about how generational conflict has socially, politically and economically squeezed the life out of my generation.
I could point to logical arguments such as “state and federal austerity measures assassinated higher education funding, compelling students to pay for their education through loans,” or “every fiscal measurement shows students who graduate from college make more money than those who don’t, and students want that earning potential.”
I could use the bevy of anecdotal evidence at my disposal to detail how crushing student debt can be. But I don’t want to blame anybody. I realized about midway through freshman year the dream of a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, automatic sprinklers, two angel-eyed children and a golden retriever wasn’t going to happen the moment I put on a cap and gown.
I, like many students, have no sense of entitlement. I worked long hours in much heat during high school and on deadlines in college. I, like many students, am willing to get my hands dirty and set my standards low. I’ll settle for a job that puts a roof over my head and food on my table and pays more than the principle on my student loans. I, like many students, only want the opportunity to do.
As students inch toward graduation, they — we — can’t afford to focus on what’s behind us. We can remember all the amazingly fun times we had, and we can utilize the lessons we’ve learned in our classes to propel us through our lives. But we can’t get mired in the past, in American dreams of four-car garages and weeklong vacations. We can’t mourn for what we never had.
What we do have is youth, innovation and the desire and ability to steer a world that appears rudderless right now. And I’ll take that against debt any day.
Lazarus Jackson is The State News opinion editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.