The sad faces of college debt

This article is by staff writer Jeffrey Steele.

It’s not often that I find myself in a cocoon of warm and fuzzy feelings about how good I’ve had it in life. But when I consider the economic travails endured by the current generation of college students, I can’t help feeling I’ve lived a pretty charmed existence.

When I was a collegian in the 1970s, in the era before the discovery of fire and the wheel, we didn’t have a lot of the niceties kids take for granted today. You typed your term papers on typewriters, wrote to your hometown honey by snail mail, and if you had to make a phone call off campus, you proceeded to a pay phone with lots of quarters.

But those “hardships” are nothing when compared with the burden endured by today’s collegians, many of whom will take hold of their sheepskins firm in the knowledge they’ll have $50, 000 to $100, 000 or more in debts saddling their every post-graduation move.

When I look back, the post-college years were filled with challenges. Landing a job, finding an apartment, getting used to life on my own and taking the first tentative steps toward saving some cash weren’t easy roadblocks to hurdle. But other than a few thousand dollars I’d borrowed from my parents and paid back pretty quickly over the first few years, my earnings were my own. I didn’t have to hack away at a six-figure mountain of debt just to get to the break-even point where I could start building savings.

Timely documentary

That’s why I feel sympathetic toward today’s kids. It’s clear Nastasia Peteuil shares that compassion. Peteuil spent her college years in France and didn’t have to spend much money earning her diploma. When she arrived in this country to take graduate journalism classes at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she was flabbergasted to learn how much debt was being shouldered by American college students.

Peteuil grabbed a video camera and prevailed upon four UMass Amherst students to talk about themselves, their steadily growing debt, and what that weighty indebtedness is likely to mean to them, both now and in the future. The result is a series of short videos that can be viewed under the title “Students Tell Their Tales of Debt” on the Squared Away Blog of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

Viewing these short pieces, I was struck by an irony. One’s college years are a time for laughs, for great memories and — at least for a little while — a certain carefree feeling.

But watching the four students profiled, I got the sense they had pretty much forgotten how to laugh, or in some cases even smile. Most appear to have taken on some of the gravity one might expect of a 50-year-old father of three who is caught between limited income, the costly burdens of children and aging parents and the knowledge he’s way behind in saving for retirement. In fact, one of the videos ends just as its subject, coming to grips with the enormity of the post-college debt she will face, begins to cry.

Debt in their own words

One student, Kathleen Buckingham, is a senior from New London, Conn., majoring in social thought and political economy. Her debt runs to $70, 000. “It’s going to take years for this to go away, ” she says. “It’s going to be a problem when I get out into the real world and I have to work, like, maybe two, three jobs at a time to make that monthly payment . . . another emotion I feel often is guilt, because you know, I’ve gotten an education, but at what cost? What is that going to mean for my future?”

Another student, Michael McCormack, is an economics and political science major. We see him chiseling away at college costs by toiling drearily at the cafeteria dish machine, a task many former college students, including me, would find familiar. What we would not find familiar is the $60, 000 in debt he has rolled up. The cost, he says, has made him confront his dreams. The job he would like to have after college is not going to pay off his debt. “I try not to think of the debt I have, ” he says. “I just think of my brother going to school in a few years, and it will be worse for him than it was for me.”

For every high school-aged individual planning on going away to college in the near future, or the parents of any such prospective collegians, these videos are absolutely can’t-miss viewing. Not all profiled students agree with one junior with $100, 000 in debt, who opines he wishes he hadn’t gone to a four-year university. But all four students express great fear about the future, and a sad acceptance that their lives will be dramatically, perhaps permanently, impacted by the debt load they have to carry.

I’m one who believes a little deprivation, a little hardship in our younger years is actually a good thing. It teaches us life isn’t fair, and spurs a bit more early responsibility.

But $60, 000, $80, 000, $100, 000 in debt for a 20-year-old? That’s going too far. For evidence this country’s higher education system is flunking economics, you need only look at this all-too-punishing lesson in the College of Hard Knocks.

6 Responses to “The sad faces of college debt”

  1. Anonymous

    My husband I worked are behinds off to graduate college without debt. Less than two years later we bought a house. My kids are in college now, both got partial scholarships. We are helping them out, as well as them working so that they graduate without debt. When accumulating debt for college expenses, a student needs to calculate how long it will take to pay it back, can the market employ them at a reasonable rate? A friend had four loans! I couldn’t believe it. She married a guy with two loans. It is taking them forever to pay it off. Some people still have loans, when their kids have loans. It is a burden. To me, debt is a noose.
    College isn’t just tuition, it’s housing, parking, food, entertainment, travel expenses, phone, books, etc. All adds up to overwhelming. Make sure you’re a good candidate for college to begin with. Maybe trade school would be better. Check out your options!

  2. Anonymous

    Graduated (15 years ago) with roughly $25k in student loan debt, had it fully paid off after 5 years. Parents had nothing to give and luckily most of my loans were subsidized Stafford loans (many thanks to all taxpayers for that!).

    The degree just gets you in the door for that first job…after that it is all based on your experience, skills, and work ethic to move your way up.

    My advice: go to a public in-state school (keep it cheap) and intern in your field while in college (I started as a sophomore). Make sure the college you pick has businesses actively recruiting for interns in your major.

    Come graduation day: you not only have your degree but also a few years of in-major work experience — top of the list for recruiters.

  3. Anonymous

    I agree with you – I feel for them too. My debt is in the 6 figures but I have a great job, and my degrees aren’t worthless. I am glad I have fared well, but it was part luck mixed in with a ton of hard work. I worked full time through college and still ended up with a ton of debt. School is expensive! The interest on student loans is worse! Some of my loans were at 8.25% when the rate should have been so much lower. The government decided I had to pay the top rate because my mom and step-father “should” have paid for my education. Funny how the government thinks it can decide who pays for an adult’s education but ends up screwing the person…

  4. Anonymous

    I meant to say the parents of her BFF did not value higher education, when they graduated with our daughter they were in the top 5 they could not get anything at the high school level for scholarships and they wanted to attend the university where our daughter attended..She was bound and determined they would get to go she dated the alumni president and she found unusal scholarships for both of the gals, for 4 full years, they are now teachers, their hubs are principals of grade schools and they are happy as can be..If a student wants to go to school they must plan to succeed and I mean plan and then get all the scholarships and aid and grants available and save like crazy, plus work for the school a tiny bit to save even more, the time will go by quickly and they will be so happy not to be saddled by enormous debt!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Anonymous

    At the university where our only child graduated, you don’t get to go to the next year without good grades, too many students want to attend and they have to cap enrollment..Many work many years to graduate as teachers at her university, they work like hell and when they do graduate they don’t owe much..knowing teachers don’t get paid bundles of money, it is a teachers college originally, no fraternities or sororities and mostly women, great university, the loveliest school in all of our state university system, but the smart kids save like hell before going to that university and work like hell to attend and get in and get out it is too expensive of a hotel they use that term in orientation to spend lots of time paying and paying, our smarty pants daughter got it and had a great paying job for the president, got a private room, ate with the faculty and made about $18.00 an hour working and they scheduled her classes around working, what a job, she still misses the university & the many fine women and men who advised her and taught her many of life’s experiences, she so enjoyed it..oh,they keep lots of the scholarships away from most studenst she dated the alumini president and he got her two bffs money to attend..they don’t want you to know about the many myriad of scholarships but she decided since the parents of those gals never valued high education she was determined to get them scholarships for a full 4 years, our only got a huge scholarship while attending, she still worked, and only used a tiny amount of the money and kept the rest. She was a business/finance and English major and many minors, she adored school…We always say if you want to go to college you can find some way to do without accruing tens of thousands of dollars in debt..You just have to work like hell to get those scholarships and grants, and aid!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Anonymous

    This is a shameful situation and I blame the students and the Universities. The students are to blame for buying into this trap of borrowing thousands to finance sometimes worthless degrees. The Universities are to blame for their ever increasing costs and enormous salaries paid to their staff. The increase in costs has been in direct relation to the availability of student loan money. Many says that student loans are a bubble and young people are looking for the taxpayers to bail them out. Imagine how costs would fall if demand for these high cost schools fell.

    As one who worked his way through school to avoid student loan debt, I have little sympathy for these borrowers. I am against any proposal to subsidize or pay for these debts.

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