Debt May Not Be So Empowering After All
Just yesterday, I wrote a rather bemused blog post, trying to figure out just how the results of a new study from Ohio State University could be right. After all, the researchers were claiming that young adults — people my age — saw their student loan or credit card debt, not as overwhelming or limiting, but as a source of self-esteem. One of the possible reasons was that young adults saw the debt as an investment in education, which would turn over a high dividend in the future. But the results still didn’t make much sense.
Now, another writer, Sarah Burris of Future Majority, has taken the time to break down the study. She had the same reaction that I did when she read media coverage of the study: to put it succinctly, she was confused. She wrote:
“My debt has prevented me from taking jobs I wish I could take because I can’t afford them. It’s prevented me from doing a lot of things like traveling the world (a dream of mine), going to law school (a previous dream of mine), and grown up things like … not moving states every year or so because I’m looking for a new or higher paying job or better benefits. I know I’m not alone.”
As I mentioned in a previous post, I was fortunate enough to graduate last week without debt. But I still can’t pay for the things that Burris is mentioning without owing large sums of money, which I greatly fear. And I can certainly vouch for the fact that she’s not alone.
So what’s the problem with the study? Burris points out, immediately, that the researchers’ sample is misleading. Instead of measuring people who are currently in debt, and suffering from the effects of the recession and inflated college costs which emerged as a serious problem in the past few years, the study looks at respondents who graduated between the years 1979 and 2004. As Burris writes,
“A majority of these people had lower amounts of debt than today – have had more time to pay off that debt, and graduates prior to 2004 weren’t being hit with the economic recession that we’ve been dealing with for the last since even 2006 and 2007.”
Burris’ conclusion is that this study isn’t really about today’s young adults. She even ends her piece by passionately declaring that stories like this – which try to cast the massive student debt crisis in a positive light – do a disservice to the people who are struggling to pay off their debt. I’ve landed somewhere in the middle. I agree with her that for me, and almost everyone I know, debt is seen utterly terrifying, an evil to be avoided at all costs.
But I’ll also speak for myself and say that the researchers account for people like me. I come from a upper-middle-class background, and I knew that even if my school didn’t have extraordinary financial aid, my parents would have helped me out. My aversion to debt is as much about not wanting to rely on my parents as it is about fear that I won’t be able to support myself. I’m aware that this is a seriously privileged position, which is why I did not debunk the study out of hand.
The researchers explained that the self-concept boost that came from owing money for educational costs was highest among people who came from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. And I can imagine, if I decide to go to graduate school, that I’ll have some feeling of pride that I was able to finance such an important educational milestone on my own. I can also imagine that, as the researchers found, this pride will slowly be eclipsed by a growing sense of anxiety as the mountain of debt doesn’t get paid off as quickly as I anticipated.
So this is where I am: on the fence until the study gets some scholarly reviews. After all, I still haven’t read it in full. What do you think? Is Burris right, or does the study have some merits?
Photo from AMagill's Flickr photostream.