The average college graduate today starts their foray into adulthood with $29,400 worth of student debt. More than one-quarter of today’s 38 million student debtors is strapped with $50,000 or more.
“We’re not talking about a little bit of a inconvenience,” says Dan Hurley, a policy expert with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “We’re talking about [debt] that can absolutely, fundamentally alter a life’s trajectory.”
Four decades ago, the financial burden of college wasn’t nearly as onerous. When Ann Hubbard, 60, enrolled in the University of Wisconsin back in 1972, the Steven’s Point, Wisc,. native paid just $600 a semester for tuition ($2,500 in today’s dollars). Hubbard’s parents couldn’t afford to chip in, but she was able to pay her way with a combination of federal student loans, careful budgeting and a hodge podge of minimum-wage jobs.
“I wasn’t stressed about paying for college at all,” says Hubbard, who majored in psychology and sociology. “I graduated with about $2,000 in loans. I knew it could be spread out over 10 years. I paid it off in less than three.”
Since Hubbard, now a service director at the Epilepsy Foundation Heart of Wisconsin, graduated in 1976, stories like hers have become increasingly rare. For most students today, the idea of getting a part-time job and working their way through college isn’t just farfetched — it’s practically laughable. Working 20 hours a week at a part-time job at today’s federal minimum wage rate ($7.25), it would take the average college student more than five years to pay off the average net tuition cost ($35,000). And that doesn’t include expenses like housing, transportation and food.
“College affordability is really a big issue and we all need to be addressing it,” Hurley says. “Instead of young adults purchasing homes and goods and services, they’re paying [for school], which doesn’t generate any income for the country.”
Randy Olson, 28, did everything he could to minimize the cost of college. He enrolled in a school close to his parent’s home in Florida and lived with them during his undergrad years. That he would pay his way through school was never a question — his parents expected it.
So he took a minimum-wage job as a Walmart cashier and cobbled together side gigs as a computer programmer. His aggressive work routine allowed him to chip away at his student loans more each year, but eventually it became as much a burden as it was a boon.
“I failed one class and I dropped a couple of others simply because I didn’t have time to study for them,” he says. “I don’t want to paint it all in a negative light. It helped me figure out what I wanted to do after I graduated, too. But it took away from the [college] experience, meeting other people, exploring new ideas.”
The correlation between how much states invest — or don’t invest — in higher education and the relative rise in tuition rates is clear, Hurley says.
Federal funds for education given to states has declined greatly since before the recession, according to a recent report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. Today, 48 states invest less in college education than they did before the recession.
With tighter budgets, public colleges and universities largely reacted by increasing federal and state aid in large part with increases in net tuition. The cost of tuition and fees have soared by more than 1,120% since the government began keeping track in 1978. That’s twice as fast as healthcare and six times the rate of food costs. Meanwhile, the average American family’s wages barely budged over the same period.
While lawmakers and education leaders squabble over how best to manage the untenable costs of higher education, students and their families have pretty much been left in the lurch. And rather than take on unmanageable amounts of debt, some are giving up on the college dream altogether. Overall, college enrollment fell from 20.2 million in 2012 to 18.9 million in 2014, according to a recent report by the National Student Clearinghouse.
Part-time worker, full-time student
Lucy Parks, 18, enrolled at New York University in 2012 armed with a $60,000 college fund — the fruit of decades worth of her parents’ diligent saving — and a $30,000 annual scholarship from the school itself.
NYU is one of the most expensive universities in the country, running more than $60,000 a year for a full-time student, including room and board. After applying her scholarship money, she still had to pay $30,000 a year for tuition, room and board. For Parks, who wanted to take advantage of the school’s unique creative writing program, NYU was her first and only choice.
“I didn’t want to sacrifice my dream simply because I may not have enough money,” she says. To make ends meet, Parks worked three part-time jobs and eventually moved into an apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn with two friends to save money on housing."
“There were some unpleasant periods when I wasn’t working and I would run out of money and I wouldn’t eat,” she says. “Another issue is that when you have to work 20-plus hours a week, your schoolwork takes a major hit. So does your social life."
When her college funds dried up in sophomore year, she went to the school’s financial aid office for help. She left with $2,000 in grants and advice to take out more loans. Rather than take on more debt, Parks, who has a 3.75 GPA, decided to drop out. It was a decision she didn't make lightly, and she says she may enroll at a more affordable college sometime in the future. In September, she’ll move with a friend to Atlanta and try to find part-time work until something more permanent comes along.
“That kind of debt severely limits the amount of things I could do with my life,” she says. “I want to continue educating myself, but I don’t want to pay $60,000 a year for it.”
Not unlike Parks, Channing Shippen, 25, was offered the same option when her parents realized she didn’t qualify for any federal financial aid for college — either take out student loans or take her dreams of becoming a music therapist elsewhere. Because Shippen’s first choice, a private university, was considered one of the country’s best music schools, her parents decided to take out loans on her behalf. Shippen would work throughout school and be ready to pay 75% of the loans back after graduating
While studying, she worked part time at CVS, gave acting lessons at a children’s theater and brought in extra cash from private guitar lessons and babysitting. Shippen eventually quit CVS because her GPA was suffering.
By the time she graduated in 2013, she had amassed $150,000 in debt. She found her dream job as a music therapist working with with Alzheimer’s patients, but she can’t afford to live on her own and make monthly $1,400 loan payments on her $34,000 salary. So Shippen is planning to move back home with her parents.
“I’m so happy I went for my education,” she says. “It is a struggle, but this is what I signed up for and my parents are helping me every way possible."
Of course, not every student walks out of college with six-figure debt. The majority of college graduates carry less than $25,000 worth of debt, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But even that amount can cripple someone early in their career, especially when 40% of young adults are considered underemployed.
Olson graduated with a relatively low $6,000 in loans. His parents thought it was a massive accomplishment. Olson, however, wondered why he and others like him were struggling so much and still graduating with debt.
Earlier this year Olson, now a graduate student at Michigan State University, decided to look at what reality was like for his parents and grandparents when they were in college. After crunching the numbers — comparing the cost of one credit hour at MSU to federal minimum wage from 1979 to 2013 — he published his findings in a Reddit thread. He and his peers, he found, would have to work six times longer to pay for college than the average student in 1979 — and that’s if they managed to work full-time while in school.
“If you’ve ever attended college full-time,” he says. “You know that this is basically impossible.”
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