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.
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.