Should we bail on our student loan debt, or repay it? Think beyond the current generation for real change.
Over the last few days, some very interesting articles on student loan debt have been popping up on Twitter. The state of academia is constantly being debated, and the cost to attend an institution of higher education is just one of the hot topics on everyone’s mind.
Well, almost everyone.
18 year old me didn’t know much better when I applied for my first college loan. I was too excited by the prospect of attending the same prestigious University my mother had attended to stop and consider whether or not I was even really attending the right school for my major. As it turns out, the department didn’t offer me the support or encouragement I needed, leaving me confused for many years about whether or not my degree was a waste of money.
Now I stand in the front of the classroom, teaching students as young as 17 years old who are paying $20,000 per semester to attend one of the three colleges I work for. While I am by no means a counselor, without fail at least one student will admit to me, either during a conferencing period or just in a post-class rant, that he or she is not happy. Much of this unhappiness stems from one of three scenarios: being disillusioned with the school of choice; the pressure imposed by family members and friends to go to college or to major in something specific; or the sudden realization that this student is paying a whole lot of money for something that ultimately doesn’t even matter to him.
Back in June, Lee Siegel defended his decision to default on student loans in the New York Times. Siegel got a lot of negative attention from this piece, in which he encourages others to default on their student loans as a way of causing a collapse of the system.
I agree with Siegel in that I believe there needs to be a wakeup call, but encouraging a mass refusal to pay our debts is not the way to do it.
Many people need real debt relief help; as Doug Hoyes at The Simple Dollar accurately notes, sometimes debt threatens to swallow us, and bankruptcy can be the only way out for some people. However, a decision like this should not be made lightly. It needs to be made carefully, and ideally in consultation with a financial professional. The repercussions of bankruptcy and defaulting on student loan debt can be astronomical. Siegel details some of the negative effects he has experienced personal in his article.
Although I believe that student loan debt is crippling many in America, I will not be choosing to stand up to the system by refusing to pay back my debt.
Yes, I am angry. My student loan debt is higher than a year’s salary at my new full-time job. These last two summers were particularly painful; as an adjunct instructor, I was not getting paid from the end of May until mid-September. Although we were always able to make payments on these loans, the summertime crunch made it impossible to keep the forward motion going and to get ahead on my student loan debt.
The student loan system is what it is, only because so many people allow it to be so. I’m upset with 18 year old me, who just didn’t know any better. 18 year old me didn’t think of 25+ year old me (don’t worry about the particulars, now!), who would carry this student loan debt into a marriage and first child.
I’m not particularly upset with the loan companies I have loans through, who, if I’m being fair, made it very clear to me what my interest rate was, my monthly payments, and the expected payoff date for each loan.
I’m not even upset with the university I chose to attend, even though it left me feeling as though I had made the wrong decision in my life for almost 4 years. It all comes back to 18 year old me, who was either too shy, or too scared, or too ignorant to choose to change schools, to seek out a mentor, or to try new things when she had the chance.
As long as I am able to make my payments, I will be continuing to pay off my student loans, because, in the end, taking them on was my decision. It may have been a bad decision, but everything in life has consequences.
No, instead of refusing to pay our debts when we are able, I believe the wakeup call needs to start with our youth. I know how mature I thought I was at 18, but I was not informed enough to make a good decision regarding student loan debt. Some people, like Will from First Quarter Finance, are extremely smart about college. I wish I had his knowledge when I was looking to finance my education. Instead, I, like most 18 year old freshmen, went the “normal” route and financed my education with loans.
Waking up the youth of America, so that they don’t repeat the mistakes of this current generation, is going to be hard. Financial literacy is not taught in most high schools. College is pushed on all students, through preparation for tests such as the SAT, which essentially serves only as an entrance exam for colleges and has no other basis in real life. 18 year olds are being asked to consider what they want to do for the rest of their lives, and are fronting large sums of money to pursue these interests that may change by age 23. The Bachelor’s degree is the sign that you’ve “made it” and are employee material.
Where is the encouragement for our youth to work with their hands, or stretch their creativity, or do the everyday jobs we all need but seem to value less than a college education? We all need plumbers, electricians, hairdressers, locksmiths, and mechanics. We appreciate things like art, music and dancing, but is a college degree necessary for an individual to succeed in any of these fields? I believe the answer is no, and yet student loan debt rises because individuals are encouraged to pursue that BA in order to follow the trend set by society.
Maybe Siegel is on to something; maybe causing a crisis within the system is the quickest way to see change. But I still believe that education is the best way to spark change. If we educate our youth, and encourage alternatives to student loan debt, such as community college, pursuing vocational training, and delayed college entrance, we may be able to prevent future generations from needing to consider whether they are brave enough to default, or strong enough to stand up to the test of student loan debt repayment.