$233,921 in Student Debt

I persevered and read the whole damn thing.

I’d love to rip Jack for accruing over a quarter million in debt, and one might think he’s fair game as a hetero, white, male; but not for this hetero, white, male because of my economic privilege.

I can’t rip Jack because I haven’t even come close to walking in his worn-torn shoes. Back in the Pleistocene Era when college was affordable, my parents paid my college tuition which is just one example among many of the economic help they provided me and my family. My family and I are economically secure for lots of reasons, but “luck” is first and last on the list.

That’s why I can’t say, “What the hell Jack, step away from the loan application!” Nor can I go back in time and tell him to tell his kids in no uncertain terms that he can’t afford to send them to four year universities. Community college will have to suffice and then part-time jobs while working their way through public universities. Saying those things to Jack would be poor form.

It would even be insensitive for me to frame my criticism as questions like,”Jack, why the hell, loan on top of loan on top of loan? At what point do you just say ENOUGH debt already?” There has to be some personal agency, doesn’t there?

Other questions bubbling up in my pea brain are more benign. Why didn’t Jack’s “friends” stage an intervention? And how many Jacks are there out there? How can we help them avoid his fate? Where’s the urgency around this type of student debt? Is my university complicit, at all, in creating additional Jack and Jills?

In fairness to Jack, he hasn’t been seeking fame or fortune. Just a LITTLE job security. Previously homeless, and still on the edge of it, he deserves compassion.

So it’s a good thing I didn’t say anything too harsh to him.

 

Sentence to Ponder

“Nine months, 400 job applications, and 17 interviews later, I landed a part-time minimum wage job at the local Macy’s working on the loading dock.”

From “What It’s Like to Be Single in Your 60s With $233,921 in Student Debt”.

I need to muster some strength before reading the whole, mind blowing story.

Addendum: Something doesn’t add up. A full-time (I assume) fifth year teacher making $30,000? Ah, private Catholic school that apparently doesn’t have any qualms with not paying a livable wage.

Democracy Is Cool When You Vote Like Me

I’m not Bernie Sanders’ target audience. I’ve benefitted way too much from capitalism; I’m okay with my health insurance; and our recent weather aside, I’m not nearly angry enough. AND LISTENING TO HIM IS LIKE READING MILLENNIALS!!!

But I’m even less fond of the James Carville’s* of the world and other liberals who are constantly ripping Sanders youthful supporters. Instead of whining about them, try these alternatives.

Stop castigating them for their idealism; instead, affirm their engagement in the political process. For every committed “Bernie bro” there are ten apolitical apathetic people their same age. And hell, if they don’t start out idealistic, what chance do they have?

Set your Boomer pragmatism aside long enough to consider their perspective by substituting questions for the incessant, negative diatribes. Write these on an index card and put it in your shirt pocket. Why Medicare For All? Why a wealth tax? What’s it like having so much student debt? Why such an intense concern with climate change? Why dismantle capitalism? Then move on to their stories. If you’re not careful, you might learn WHY they vote differently than you.

The more respect they receive from mainstream Demos, the more likely they will be to eventually support another candidate in the case another candidate wins the nomination. Right now, given the knee-jerk invective they’re constantly subject to, I wouldn’t blame them if they simple say “A pox on both of your houses.” Which, of course, is the worst possible outcome.

*Pains me to write that, because during his Bill Clinton administration heyday, I really liked Carville. I found his smart, funny, direct, Southern, Creole riffs on all things political super engaging.

Higher Cost Education

Maybe we should begin inserting “cost” in between “higher” and “education” as a continual reminder of the increasing challenge paying for college poses.

On Lutheran university campuses there’s frequent talk of vocation which Frederick Buechner described this way, “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” During a “vocation” conversation last week, I listened to a colleague talk earnestly about the role discernment plays in determining one’s vocation. To “discern” something is to develop spiritual direction and understanding.

The discernment reference was shortly after another colleague shared an anecdote about a recent grad who’d returned to say he was still trying to find a job that would enable him to pay his bills. And mostly likely, tens of thousands of dollars of student debt.

Prior to that a colleague said we talk too narrowly about diversity, limiting it mostly to race, meaning important differences between economic classes are slighted. Connecting the various dots, it dawned on me that our repeated talk of vocation and discernment is a byproduct of our privilege. Discernment implies multiple possibilities in life, when an increasing percentage of college grads, like my colleague’s former student, would be content with one job that pays a livable wage.

In the 20th century, a college degree created far more opportunities than it does in the 21st. I’m afraid some of my higher ed friends and I have lost touch with people’s day-to-day realities. Naively, we talk of great joy, great need, spiritual direction, and understanding; when what many of them want is enough money to make it to graduation and the confidence they’ll find decent enough work to meet their basic needs.

 

 

 

Choosing Debt

Something’s wrong.

I just finished reading a batch of student essays about whether money is important or not and what recent social scientific research suggests about money and happiness.

Some of my students’ families struggle financially. Those students touched upon their parents’ debt and the negative consequences that have resulted from it, strained relationships marked by stress and unrelenting tension. Being well-to-do is more important to them than to my students who take their family’s financial stability for granted.

Many of these students describe the loans they decided to take out. “You have to spend money,” one explained, “to make money.” They are desperately in need of adults who model financial self discipline.

At age eighteen, they are eerily comfortable with five figure debt. And if statistics are any guide, their precarious family foundations make graduating less likely. Even if they graduate, there’s no guarantee they’ll find work that pays enough for them to dig out of their debt.

It’s great they want to continue their education, and I like having them in class, but someone has to wake them from their slumber and tell them there are much less expensive paths to getting a good education. In particular, community colleges and public universities.

Their fallacies overlap and multiply. The first is that loans are a logical solution to financial problems. The second is that attending an expensive university leads to higher paying jobs.

Universities absolve themselves of this problem, saying it’s up to the lenders themselves to assess peoples’ ability to repay loans.

I don’t know what to do. If I tell the “loaners” that there are much less expensive paths, they’ll probably conclude that I don’t think they can cut it at our pricey, private university. And if I follow my university’s lead and simply close my eyes when I know the train is about to jump the track, the students will continue down a very treacherous path.

Forego College?

Consider the recent higher ed news. Absent remediation, most high school graduates are unlikely to succeed in college. Too many college students aren’t learning much. Tuition inflation continues at a faster pace than even healthcare insurance and total student debt now exceeds credit card debt.

At the risk of simplifying things, there are two types of eighteen year olds (and people more generally): risk-averse single hitters who plan on working for someone else and entrepreneurial power hitters not afraid of starting a biz and possibly whiffing.

Neither group is inherently better than the other, but a college degree makes more sense for the first group since most livable wage paying organizations and businesses require at least one. One hopes the single hitters understand a college degree doesn’t guarantee nearly as much as it did a few decades ago. Like a miler standing stationary at the firing of a starter’s gun, they’re paying considerable money up front to increase their odds of future employment success as illustrated by this dramatic graphic.

Of course there are many intangible benefits to a good college education—such as greater independence and self understanding—but those things aren’t necessarily exclusive to those populating leafy college campuses.

Given the escalating costs of higher education and the unprecedented internet-based accessibility to knowledge and people around the world, why aren’t more ambitious, talented, smart, hardworking, risk-oriented, entrepreneurial eighteen year olds using the time right after high school to refine their knowledge and skills on their own in order to create new niches within the economy? Why isn’t there more of an Abraham Lincoln or Mark Cuban-like autodidacticism at work today?

Is it because everyone is afraid to go college-less first, or because parents fear their childrens’ short-term business failures and long-term economic vulnerability, or is something else at work?