US$1 Trillion and Counting…?

It was always a foregone conclusion that I would attend university. But, I must be one of the only people amongst my friends who didn’t graduate from university or graduate school with crippling student loan debt.

Despite an early career as a ‘professional student’, which included an extended period spent ‘finding myself’ and finishing my undergrad (1988-1993, spent at two separate institutes and with enough credit hours to have at least three majors), a Master’s (1994-1997), and just shy of a PhD (1997-1999, with a few extra semesters still on the roster spent in absentia), I didn’t take out a single student loan. Not one.

To be completely transparent, from my third year onward as an undergrad, I worked at least part-time and had help (particularly with tuition fees) from scholarships and/or my family throughout. My entire graduate education tuition was provided for through assistantships and fellowships, and I was paid as a teaching or research assistant (at times very handsomely). I worked hard; and I played hard. But, I had no debt of any kind at the end of it all. Even the credit card debt I’d wracked up when times were leaner were paid off by the time I left the halls of the academy for ‘the real world’.

I am a rarity in the US evidently.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across graph from a study carried out by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY), which included current college loan debt by age range and was astounded to see that a healthy percentagee of those in their 60s still had outstanding balances from their college days. A healthy 5.3%, in fact. That amounts to nearly 2 million individuals in their 60s! Think about that. You’d expect that an individual would graduate university sometime in their early to mid-20s. Then, get a job straight away, work for 30+ years, and then they still have student loan debt? How is that possible?

I well remember peers of mine in graduate school tabulating how much their education had cost. One such peer had a PhD from NYU, one of the leading schools in his particular field. Because teaching jobs at the time were few and far between, he could only get an adjunct teaching position, which meant he was paid about the same as I was as a first-year PhD candidate on a fellowship and assistantship. His student loan payments were double his rent and car payment combined, and he lived in a shit hole. Another friend who had completed his Master’s and was a brilliant archaeologist and historic preservationist had something like US$70 000 in student loan debt upon graduation. Finding jobs for them was more about survival than what they were necessarily trained to do or enjoyed doing.

According to the same study carried out by the FRBNY, student loan debt in the US now tops both outstanding automobile loans and credit card debt, and has been estimated at US$1 trillion. That’s staggering. Granted, that balance isn’t shouldered by one individual nor even one generation as the graph above shows. But, still. With roughly 37 million individuals (or 15.4% of those who have debt of any kind) collectively carrying that debt, that’s a heavy burden to bear.

From my relatively privileged position of not being saddled with crippling student loan debt, it’s easy for me to say that I fully support an education system which is free to all. Recent graduates have plenty enough to worry about—securing a job in their chosen profession, developing their careers, etc. For those who happen to marry and/or have children at the same time, which is perfectly within their rights, why add the burden of student loan debt to that list of concerns? Furthermore, shouldn’t we as a society want to see our citizenry well educated and trained, equipping them as much as possible with the tools they need to succeed in their professions?

If knowledge is power, why do we make it so difficult to gain a body knowledge? If it’s inherently better to teach a man to fish, why charge him with interest to learn to do so?

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