Most of us want to find meaningful work, travel while we’re young, say no to the wrong opportunities, experiment with entrepreneurship, save for the future, and create a lifestyle that allows us to live fully and maximize the impact of our limited human lifespan. Unfortunately, the financial structures behind higher education in the United States today are constructed in ways that actually cripple the freedom of some Americans, and we’ve only begun to understand the social and economic implications of this systemic malpractice.
I believe student loans were created with good intentions: to help provide a vehicle for upward mobility for the lower classes. With no possible way to fund a higher education, a loan was a sensible way to get a leg up. Loans, dating back from the 1950s, helped move college enrollment numbers from just 185,500 in 1940 to 839,730 by 1970. But keep in mind, the average cost of attending college in the 1980s was $3,500, a much more reasonable sum of money to take out in debt at the beginning of a career. Since then, the cost of a college education has risen 400%, but the median income has only increased by 14%.
Now, when 40 million Americans are shackled to an average of $35,000 of debt -- a number that has tripled over the past two decades as the nationwide total student debt approaches $1.4 trillion -- they are left with no choice but to accept the first job with a salary high enough to start repaying their loans.
Forget about taking time off to see the world or accepting an unpaid internship at a dream company. Forget about taking risks, having the funds to start a small venture without outside investment, or saving to have enough money to navigate a career transition later in life. And forget about getting ahead financially so that you can work less as you get older.
It’s no wonder 70% of millennials are unhappy in the workforce -- most of them haven’t had time to consider what they’d actually like to do after graduation, or they simply can’t afford to do what they really want because they’re in debt. So the poets are bankers and the designers are consultants and the activist has gone into advertising, which results in a large portion of our youth becoming marginalized, misplaced, and frustrated because of a financial burden they couldn’t possibly comprehend at the age of 17.
At 26, I look back on the past 10 years of my life and see with a humbling clarity that the biggest facilitator of my ability to travel to 50 countries by age 25, quit a corporate job I found stifling, land my dream job, and take a gap year to pursue a side career as a freelance writer was my lack of student debt.
I’m from a hardworking, blue-collar family from Buffalo, NY and knew early on that my parents couldn’t pay for my college education. At 15, I started cleaning tables at an ice cream parlor and later worked at a restaurant every day after school. I saved religiously, but after two years I had no more than $5,000, which wasn’t enough for even one semester at the local university.
Fortunately, I graduated with top marks, served as president of my class, won national essay contests, and was an all-around overachiever. I’ll never forget the day a letter came in the mail informing me that I had been awarded a full academic scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, worth approximately $160,000 over four years. I cried the happiest, most awe-struck tears of my life.
Still, I had been admitted to other more “prestigious” universities and $50,000 of debt didn’t seem like a bad trade-off for the brand names I’d always dreamed about. I was tempted and torn.
In the end, I had the tremendous intuition (or blind luck) to take the full ride and went on to have the four happiest years of my life at UNC. I earned tens of thousands of dollars in additional scholarships that allowed me to travel to Guatemala, South Korea, China, and Egypt as an undergraduate. I also worked two part-time jobs and graduated with substantially more money than when I enrolled. I was incredibly lucky.
After graduation, I landed a management consulting job at IBM in New York City, but my pesky international inclinations drove me overseas after two years. I was able to quit and find a better fit, I now realize, because I was not in debt and the habits I gained as a penurious 15-year-old turned a NYC salary into a well-endowed savings account. I’ve since been able to build a writing and coaching business by floating myself on that “freedom fund,” and I even took a break to spend 14 months traveling the world this year.
All of this is more or less the result of a decision I made at 17, with little awareness of how much it would define the first decade of my professional life in such a positive way.
The Alternatives and Way Forward
My message is simple: High school students, parents, and young professionals considering graduate school should be extremely wary of going into debt.
Sometimes, especially for students from lower income levels, there isn’t much choice. If you have to take out a loan to get an education, I won’t tell you not to. But if there’s a viable choice that’s less expensive, go for that. If you have top marks, try for a scholarship. If you can study and work at the same time, do that. Educate yourself on predatory loan companies and practices, as well. Studying overseas is also an attractive option, and there are many top universities in Europe and Asia that offer a great education at a low or nonexistent cost for American students.
We’re entering into age where technology has changed the playing field, and your personal brand, experience, personality, network, and drive are becoming almost as important as the degrees that set you back a decade in loan repayments. Nevertheless, the value of a college degree is still high, so while it’s clearly important to get an education, it’s essential to consider the most practical way of financing it.
Fortunately, the start-up world has also taken note of the debt crisis and companies like WeFinance, SoFi, Gradifi, Student Loan Hero, Student Loan Genius, and Common Bond (just to name a few) are innovating the student loan model in a very positive way. WeFinance allows people to crowdfund their loans, and Gradifi and Student Loan Genius encourage employers to help employees pay off debt as part of their benefits programs.
But private sector solutions are still limited in the face of a large scale policy gap. Until the system changes and catches up with how much of the rest of the industrialized world provisions higher education, the best thing we can do is change our own behavior. We vote with our dollars in America, and we can decide that the freedom to start our professional lives on our own terms is worth more than the name of a prestigious institution on our resume. We’ll become educated, but we’ll do it with a very acute understanding of the consequences of how we fund it.
Parents, students, and graduates, we also have to write to our congressmen and senators, join rallies against student debt and the rapidly rising cost of higher education, and advocate for student loan forgiveness programs. We must keep this issue on the forefront of the political agenda because placing the burden of financing a corporatized university system on the shoulders of our youth stifles the economy, hinders innovation, undermines American freedoms, inhibits individual happiness, and reduces collective well-being.