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Debt May Not Be So Empowering After All

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?

Take Action: Sign the petition to stimulate the economy by forgiving all student loans.

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47 comments

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7:36AM PDT on May 30, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

7:25PM PDT on Jun 20, 2011

I agree, devaluating money is empowering though!

12:41PM PDT on Jun 12, 2011

I went to school during the study periods & graduated with significant amount of debt so that I was unable to take quite a few jobs that I would have loved to do and instead was forced to take a job due to the security (health insurance) and stability -regular pay check and a second job for several years. I'm still in that dead end job-it's like a vicious cycle -i now relay on that paycheck. So I totally disagree with that study.

12:03PM PDT on Jun 11, 2011

First, what ever happened to Free Education for all?

Second, there are community colleges and city colleges that are less expensive. Not everyone needs to attend an Ivy League school. So, No, loans should not be forgiven. I paid off my student loans within the first 7 years.

Third, debt is not good, no matter how you try to market it! Someone else ends up paying.

9:48AM PDT on Jun 10, 2011

I do not agree, thank you.

8:37AM PDT on Jun 10, 2011

For the government to bailout the banks with fre interest taxpayer money but do nothing for homeowners and students with high interest student loans by the same banks themselves demonstrates he hypocrisy of capitalism.

Our politicians do not represent the people. They represent the corporations which includes the banks, oil companies, the military industrial complex, and corporate media.

The goal of the government and corporations is to make debt slaves out of us so they can have us begging for jobs and eaier to control. millions of homeowners have been thrown out of their homes. Now rents are starting to skyrocket. Notice the government don't count increases in housing in the cost of living index. the government claims there is no inflation. How ridiculous.

6:20AM PDT on Jun 10, 2011

Thanks for the article.

2:54AM PDT on Jun 10, 2011

Debt may be crippling, but managing fiscal affairs responsibly is empowering.

10:39PM PDT on Jun 9, 2011

debt with interest is a snare for all who are unfortunate enough to get caught in it. If the governement is sincere about people getting education here are some sincere suggestions:

- increase the repayment period to make payments lower.

- you should get bigger tax breaks if you are still paying off debt. in fact the entire amount that you are paying off as debt repayment should be a write off.

- start giving out interest free tax loans.

- give loan concessions if someone is unable to pay due to perhaps a lower paying job or a disability or unemployment.

- conditions should exist for a waiver of loan altogether.

But all this adresses the loans and not education. there is a whole world of suggestions where education should be accessable and be cheaper for all. it should be subsidized or made inexpensive with grants and so on.

If America didn't spend 7 trillion dollars on its wars dropping bombs in deserts and testing its new toys on civilians there, it could have educated every American free for the next ten years.

9:03PM PDT on Jun 9, 2011

This level of debt, suffered by those who have sought the benefits of education, are akin to that of the workers in past centuries who "owed their soul to the company store" as the old song goes. While on the one hand an education is necessary to have any degree of success in our current corporate run culture getting it requires most students to assume levels of debt that guarantee they will be loyal corporate soldiers because they can't afford not to be. If we truly valued education, as we claim we do, for its own sake, then it would be free for everyone and would provide the opportunity to continue it throughout our lives. But the reality is that in our society education is simply another commodity that is peddled to the public, not in itself a bad thing, but not necessarily a good one either and its purchase is often made with credit that leaves the buyer paying for it far into the future in order to make profit for those that finance such purchases.

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