Wednesday, October 19, 2011

US Student Loan Debt Hits $1 Trillion

We're entering new territory. US student loan debt has hit the $1 trillion mark along with record defaults. I have many friends who are buried in debt working multiple menial jobs they don't like in order to stay current with loan payments. I know many others who have just quit the game all together. I wonder what I can do? The number 1 trillion seems so beyond comprehension. No one ever brought up student debt when the number was at $100 billion or even $500 billion. Now in a quick blurb on a website the New York Federal Reserve casually notes that an entire generation is living under $1 trillion in fees and expenses. How are they going to afford homes?

I remember how much going to college was stressed to us as children. College, college, college. One day while in high school I floated the idea of not going to college to a few of my friends. You would've thought I was suggesting torturing kittens. The look of horror on their faces was astonishing. YOU HAVE TO GO TO COLLEGE!!! I was shouted down. The fanatic reaction made me laugh and, me being a contrarian back then (which is a fancy word for a smart-ass jerkwad instigator), I pushed it a little further. What if I didn't go to college? What would happen? Would I be struck down by lightning? What was so vital about college? What was gleaned from college that was so fundamental to adulthood?  I could see the malfunctioning computer freeze seize their faces. They were beyond speech. Silence. One of them sent me a note the next day saying she went home and cried at the thought of me not going to college. I wondered if my parents of Bank of America were paying her to say that.

I made a high school mental note: people are really serious about college. I have to believe this seriousness, this rigidity didn't come from them. It was handed to them by their parents and the institutions that cater to middle-class families. Somewhere along the way, going to college became a must-have for middle America. Something felt wrong. The reaction of my friends was unnaturally harsh, like they had been programmed.

Granted, I always thought I would go to college. But I was also aware that there were other routes to life. I had the grades, I'm good at solving problems, I can speak in front of people. There are millions of jobs out there for simple, fairly intelligent men and women capable of solving problems and keeping order: they're called managers. Store managers, restaurant managers, stage managers, office managers, it doesn't matter the setting. A manager is just someone who deals with people, fills out paper, handles problems, keeps order. A very necessary function to any business or organization, but not rocket science. You don't need a college degree to be a manager. Or to be an artist, humanitarian, computer programmer. You don't even need a college degree to go into business. In fact college is a luxury for most professions and lifestyles.The only job that seems to make college education a must is teaching in college. A hundred years ago, college was reserved for those looking to further their interest in a philosophy, study religion, or teach.

I think somewhere along the way, banks got together with major universities and saw a goldmine. You have all these kids who don't know what to do after high school. Most just get a job or go into the army, or take a class or two at the local college. If we can get millions of middle class sons and daughters to buy into 4-year university experience as a must, then we're talking about a seismic shift in lifestyle and financing. Along with owning a suburban house, car, and taking summer vacations, college became the post WW II item that parents wanted in their lives. Why? Because the next-door neighbor's kid is going to college. Doesn't matter if the kids wants to or not, they're going to college because that's the kind of parents they wanted to be. Hence, the baby boomers we're pitched college as a status sign of upward mobility. Then these baby boomers had kids and became the first generation of college-educated, middlebrow workers.

My sister's generation, Generation X, was the second generation of college-educated masses. I am the third. I notice the difference between her education and mine. Her education didn't have many frills. You went to the computer lab to write your paper. A pizza party was considered high-class college life. I remember moving her out of her dorm after graduating. We could fit everything in the back of a mid-sized van. A few years later I went to college and people were backing up U-Haul trucks to the dorm entrance. You needed a computer. And a cell phone. You just did. Additionally there was all sorts of university-sponsored items and university-stamped accessories to buy. And then there's tuition. The four years in between her education and mine had a startling jump in tuition from most major schools. The average of the top 50 schools went from being $20,000 (still way too much) to being $30,000. That's a $10,000 inflation in 4 years that has not been matched by wages. Now I hear it's at $40,000.

My time in college was great. I went to a top ten university, traveled, had amazing teachers, became an artist. But if I'm really honest the $30,000 was a status symbol. Did my education (mostly writing classes where would sit around table with paper cost $30,000? No. Could I have traveled, taken a few classes at a local college, and become an artist the old-fashioned way? Yes!

Halfway through my freshman year in college my friends taped me going on diatribe in my dorm room. It's been more than ten years but I remember I was ranting about feeling cheated. The food was nice, the friends were nice, the campus was nice. Northwestern is a really nice school. But something fundamental was missing and I suspected it was missing from all of the best schools.

In the past the liberal college education was based on making better men and women. You would study ethics, law, art, history. Getting a job was not the goal. The goal was enlightenment. But now that we were paying so much money the soul of college education felt dead. Our parents wanted us locked-in to a career. No question. Okay if you want to go to graduate school but it all felt like a huge wind-up for sitting at a desk.

The world order played like a con game. Just like back in high school with my friend insisting that we all MUST go to college. Now we were in college and we were being told we MUST get a job that fits our status. And me being a contrarian, I don't take to being told by society what I must do. I don't like feeling Adam Smith's invisible hand up my ass prodding me into the marketplace of trading dreams and goals for more nice stuff. In the middle of my rant I remember stopping. It felt like I was having a revelation. That's it. First it's must-do college. Then must-do white collar job. Then must-do marriage, kids, home, mortgage, debt, debt, debt! The whole game was rigged. It had nothing to do with improving my soul or educating my mind. It was about getting the cog plugged into the machine, working it until it broke, and then replacing it with a newer cog. The entire system is a game. At the time I was 18 and had been at the top of the class my entire life. But NOW I was really learning.

After my freshman year I went through a funk. I was no longer interested in nice things. I was a radical asshole, capable of telling you everything that's wrong with enjoying your sweatshop-bought shirt, your factory-processed food, your artificially-induced bourgeoisie emotions of romance. It took me another year to move through that anti-everything phase. By the time I graduated I felt more balanced. I realized most of my friends were going off to work jobs they would not enjoy to afford a lifestyle that left them feeling more comfortable than inspired. I accepted that marriages would be made, homes would be bought, and debt would pile up. I learned to be okay with desiring success and wealth, without getting stuck in the game. Along the way, I lost money, made a lot of money, paid off most of my debt, went to grad school, and refused dozens of desk jobs.

I am 32 and I know that I can not handle settling. I would crawl out of skin if I settled into a job, relationship, comfortable view of the world. This had made for some tumult and uncertainty. Unlike most of my college friends I don't know how much money I'm earning every month. I'm a writer, producer, and artists. Some days it's great and some days it's horrendous. But I am still here. And I would never trade in this flowing, rich life for consistent crumbs.

My generation's anger over our debt is that we traded not only our money but our hopes. And we ended losing both. The lost dreams of my generation dwarfs the $1 trillion owed. The money is merely another sign that the game is not working on a financial level as well as spiritual. We have to find a better way.

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