Student Loan Debt

Student loan debt is a hot topic these days. Recent graduates have a lot of debt but not a lot of job prospects. The average debt in 2011 was $23,300. Roughly 54% of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. I was in that category until recently, and many of my friends are struggling to find a job. Last Friday the NY Times released a short video interviewing three recent New Paltz graduates that were drowning in debt.  That obviously hit close to home.

I am so lucky and fortunate for several reasons. My family was able to pay for my education and I don’t have any loans to pay.  I really wanted to go to Bucknell University in high school. I did well and a lot of my friends were heading off to big name state schools or private schools. Bucknell had a great campus and a $40,000 per year tuition price tag. I remember my parents telling me they would try as hard as they could to pay for me to go if I got in. In hindsight I am happy to say I was rejected, so I never had to decide whether to go to a prestigious private school or a SUNY. Four years of New Paltz tuition was less than a year at Bucknell.

Who’s to blame for all this college debt? Well first, it does no good to place blame on anyone since these recent graduates are stuck with this regardless. Because they are stuck with this it is easy to place blame on them. When I was watching the New Paltz video the NY Times posted even I thought “Why did you spend $60,000 for an Art History degree? C’mon now!” But I started college in 2007, a year before the recession started. We had been bred since middle school to become college students. Adults gave us this idea that college was the golden ticket to the sweet life, we just had to get a decent SAT score, pass our finals and join a sport or club. Once we were accepted to college we would therefore be guaranteed a job upon graduation and we would be quickly reaping up those millions of additional dollars you earn over the course of your lifetime thanks to our degrees. And the better the college we attended, the better our lives would turn out. Any price tag was worth it!

This might sound suspicious for you, an adult, who has learned that adults can often be incorrect and misguided, just like kids. However, at 16 and 17 years old this can sound like a completely logical game plan. Senior year of high school is all about comparing your SAT scores to colleges in your range. You have “reach” schools, “good fits” and finally, “safety” schools. Getting into a reach school was amazing, being stuck with a safety schools seemed like failure. (At my high school most of our safety schools were state schools and community colleges, the ones with a lower price tag! But we didn’t see it that way.)

After we found out our fate, our parents often had good sense and helped us make a decision based on a combination of school fit and price tag. After time and consideration I decided that New Paltz was worth the bang for its considerably smaller buck, it had a decent education program and four years later I graduated with a degree and great friends and memories.

Sometimes I think about what I would have done if I had to pay for college myself. At 17 years old I worked at a West Point gift shop on the weekends and I made an average of about $100 every two weeks. I can’t imagine how overwhelming it must have been to take out loans. The actual weight of amounts like $23,000 are foreign to the average 17 year old. We had been told our whole lives that we should go to good schools, the schools most have heard of often cost upwards of $40,000 or more. If that’s their price than you would assume it is reasonable- maybe it’s not as much money as your 17 year old self seems to think it is. One year on the job after college and this will all be paid off…

After the economy sank we can now see that this student loan debt really can’t work. I want us to change this ridiculous mindset. The average cost of a private school in the 2011-2012 school year was $27,340. The average starting salary for 2011 graduates was $41,701. I don’t see why you would pay more to go to college than what you make in your first year on the job.

The United States is a free country, and if you want to and can pay $30k per year tuition, it should be an option. But this should not be the norm by any means. It shouldn’t matter the name of the school but the worth of the student who attended it. With all of the publicity going towards student loan debt, I hope it has helped high school graduates and their parents realize what a disaster large amounts of student loans are. I hope strong students are attending schools within their financial means and that this is the norm, not the exception. State schools are great. Community Colleges are a valuable and necessary option for many. Going to school part time while working is commendable. Working a few years before going to college should be valued as well. We need to stop allowing our high schoolers to be so jaded and help them see that college can be their first big financial investment. A lot of the same students that took out student loans would never buy a car without having an income, yet they thought they were doing the right thing to buy their college education without one.

Just some food for thought. I’m a little sad because I feel like my generation was somehow tricked, and I hope all these kids are able to stay afloat.

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