The Financial Aid office at my college is not a place students like to go. A recent report in the New York Times about student debt makes it very clear why: Student debt is likely to rise above a trillion dollars this year, exceeding credit card debt. While less than half of students who earned a bachelor’s degree took out loans for college in 1993, two-thirds did in 2008. Last year, the average amount of debt for graduates was $24,000 — a debt burden that is all the more difficult to pay back as recent graduates struggle to find jobs in the recession.
Some education experts remark how starting post-college life with such a debt burden no doubt weighs on career and life choices:
“If you have a lot of people finishing or leaving school with a lot of debt, their choices may be very different than the generation before them,” said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for Student Access and Success. “Things like buying a home, starting a family, starting a business, saving for their own kids’ education may not be options for people who are paying off a lot of student debt.”
In some circles, student debt is known as the anti-dowry. As the transition from adolescence to adulthood is being delayed, with young people taking longer to marry, buy a home and have children, large student loans can slow the process further.
Susan Dynarski, a professor of education and public policy at the University of Michigan, describes student debt as ‘good debt.’ Studies continue to show that college graduates earn more than those who do not have a degree, with $55,700 in median earnings for bachelor’s degree recipients working full time year-round in 2008 — $21,900 more than the median earnings of high school graduates. College graduates earn more over their lifetimes and their unemployment rate is lower.
I need to remind my own students of these facts, especially the education and humanities majors who face a very tough market for entry-level teaching jobs, and the nursing majors struggling to get through the rigors of their programs. As an example of the benefits of college, even if one has to shoulder a mountain of debt, the New York Times cites no one less than the President and Mrs. Obama:
Barack and Michelle Obama helped raise awareness when they spoke in the presidential campaign about how their loan payments after graduating from Harvard Law School were more than their mortgage payments.
“We left school with a mountain of debt,” Mr. Obama said in 2008. “Michelle I know had at least $60,000. I had at least $60,000. So when we got together we had a lot of loans to pay. In fact, we did not finish paying them off until probably we’d been married for at least eight years, maybe nine.”
Even then, Mrs. Obama said, it took the royalties from her husband’s best-selling books to help pay off their loans.
The Obama administration has made it easier for students like mine whose families have lower incomes to get out of debt, with a program of “income-based repayment that forgives remaining federal student debt for those who pay 15 percent of their income for 25 years — or 10 years, if they work in public service.”
It’s not easy to tell students who are juggling studies, jobs and life that their student loans will all be worth it; that there’s ‘no pain without gain.’ The benefits, economic and otherwise, of a college degree are clear: How can we help students to get the education, training and knowledge they need to work without having to spend their whole careers paying it back?
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