The depths of debt

Is higher ed worth the cost?

Aug 29, 2012 at 12:00 am

The way we think about college has changed a lot in the last few decades. Instead of graduation denoting entry into a bright world of new possibilities, today's graduation marks the time to begin paying back an insurmountable, suffocating debt of student loans.

College debt and the long-lasting role it plays in so many lives today isn't something that can be summed up easily, but the numbers are staggering. Last year, student loan debt surpassed $1 trillion, outstripping our nation's credit card debt for the first time in history.

Also, some aren't just swimming in thousands of dollars of debt — they're barely treading water as they struggle with loans of $100,000 or more.

Consider this: Since 1978, the price of tuition at U.S. colleges increased more than 900 percent, an astonishing 650 points above inflation, the literary magazine n+1 reported last year. Furthermore, in 2009 the Project on Student Debt found that, on average, college seniors left with $24,000 in outstanding loans upon receiving their diplomas.

Consider that the college grads of the baby boomer generation were often able to put themselves through school, and graduated with the then-reasonable possibilities of settling down, buying a home, a car, or even saving money before going for the aforementioned. 

Compare that to today's students, who not only graduate in debt, but often show surprising disregard for the enormous price tag of a degree as they sign loan after loan. 

What's more, today's graduates face a much different environment than a generation ago. The New York Times reported that, in May, researchers from Rutgers University released a study on recent graduates that found 40 percent of the study's participants had delayed in making a major purchase (house, car, etc.) because of debt from college. Nearly one-quarter said they stopped attending school or moved in with relatives to save money. Only half of those interviewed for the study reported they had full-time jobs.

In other words, The American Dream is becoming more a relic of the past than an attainable future goal.

The number of unemployed graduates mentioned in the Times article is consistent with data culled from the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey and the U.S. Department of Labor, the Associated Press reported this May. Of Americans 25 or younger with bachelor's degrees, roughly 53 percent, or 1.5 million, were either unemployed or underemployed.

Nothing encapsulates the overarching frustrations and concerns more pointedly than the comment Chelsea Grove, a Bowling Green State University student forced to drop out due to overwhelming loans, made in the New York Times report:

"I'll be paying this forever."

Grove, the story continued, accumulated $70,000 of debt in her tenure at Bowling Green and currently works three jobs to meet her $510 monthly obligation. She added, in regard to the possibility of finishing school one day:

"For me to finish it would mean borrowing more money. ... It makes me puke to think about borrowing more money."

Those who choose to buckle down and march on toward graduation with debt to the extent of Grove's face a heavy toll. A study conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank in New York found nearly 2 million people at least 60 years old are still paying student loans, arguably throwing all possibilities of retirement out the window. One-third, the study found, is represented by those 40 and older.

Even if a student accumulates the average debt-load of $24,000, the repercussions are still grim.

One of my friends, who has roughly $14,000 in debt, is currently making a $220 payment each month — about the equivalent of a car payment — and will do so over the next decade, meaning the load will be paid off in his mid-30s. The list of potential woes goes on and on when you consider the consumer activity lost to loan payments won't help stimulate a flagging economy. 

Furthermore, with a generation of graduates facing formidable debts, where will the baby boomer generation find prospective owners looking to purchase their homes?

The question for young people now is whether pursuing higher education to improve employment prospects later on in life — something that has been documented as being entirely true — is really worth the risk.

Ryan Felton is a Metro Times editorial intern. He is a recent graduate of Wayne State University. You can reach him at [email protected].