This is the 8th installment in our editorial series Can the Millennial Dissent? as well as the 3rd installment in our Student Debt series—like that crossover episode of Law & Order and Homicide: Life on the Street.
I remember the day my student loan papers first arrived. It was the spring of 1998. And I, with all the cockeyed optimism of a boy-king—or an American high-school senior—tore into the envelope like a kid on Christmas morning. I couldn’t wait to see the offer—and I watched with bated breath to see whether I could even afford to go to college. Turns out I couldn’t.
I went anyway, albeit with arguably mixed results. Emory had made a generous offer, leaving my overall contribution at around $20,000—a pittance compared to its actual cost of around $40k/year. I was getting off light. So I elected to go, for two reasons.
First, I didn’t realize I couldn’t afford it. I’d never had one thousand dollars to my name, let alone twenty. It may as well have been Monopoly money, and here was my very own Rich Uncle Pennybags coming through, flush with Coca-Cola Cash and a financial aid package to beat the band. Which leads me to reason two: I wasn’t going to not go to college. I just figured that’s what it cost, and I’d have to figure it out later. Because that’s what people do, right?
Only now it’s later. 17 years later, after a few years of financial hardship deferment, consolidation of grad school loans (another $20k) and the lowering of payments that went along with it, I owe a grand total of $40,000. Of course, that’s just the beginning. My overall payout will be more like $70,000. That’s spread over thirty years, well after I’m of retirement age. (Just kidding. I’ll never be able to retire.)
But they told you this would happen, in writing, you say, making good points. It’s like eating at a nice restaurant and then complaining when the bill comes. Well kind of, except imagine that the bill also had an added 75% gratuity going straight to the bankers who own the building. This is when loan defaulting starts happening—the old dine ‘n dash. Hard to blame some of them.
So yes, at 75%, this interest amount goes well beyond the cost of doing business. It’s a hardship. I pay $261.79 per month. That’s more than half what I pay in rent each month. My friend who served in the Air Force now pays over $400 a month. Some people give 10% of their income to the Church. It’s called tithing. This is how Sallie Mae became my religion.
Of course, that’s an obvious and easy point to make—almost a low-blow, a potshot. (Never mind their monthly email thanking me for my E.D. payment, speaking of low-blows and feelings of impotence.) Still, it’s really not all that different from the religious model. Back in the Dark Ages, church representatives would sell indulgences to mitigate sin and ensure heaven for the customer. It’s the kind of thing that led Martin Luther to pick up a hammer and nail his 95 Theses to the cathedral door. That, and popular phrases like: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” It’s Zuzu’s Petals all over again.
Tithing also aims to redress sin financially. What they’re selling is a pie-in-the-sky mentality: real dollars now for hypothetical gain later. Like, way later—when you’re dead.
So what’s Sallie Mae selling? Education, sure, and that’s indispensable. But no one at Sallie Mae really gives a damn whether you take that John Stuart Mill seminar or not. What’s implicitly at stake is a contract. Buy this diploma and be saved. It’s your one and only ticket to the American Dream. While that dream became the Baby Boomers’ reality, it seems all but unrealizable for us. Instead we live and loiter in its stark, hungover aftermath.
If you were to come to me as a friend and say you owe someone some money, my first question would be How much? And then you’d say $70,000. And I’d have no earthly idea what to say next. Leave town. Just disappear. They’re going to kill your family and then you. But hold on, you say. It’s student debt. Oh, well that’s a horse of a different color, I say—or some blasted thing—breathing a hefty sigh of relief. Well then you’re fine, because Suze Orman says that’s good debt. Let me tell you something. “Good debt” is a sham, a lie, a god-damned oxymoron if ever I heard one. It puts “jumbo shrimp” to shame.
This isn’t because a college education is a bad thing in itself. It simply doesn’t have the same raw purchase power it had for the Baby Boomers, for whom a college diploma almost guaranteed a lifetime of steady gainful employment. Much like the Old Gray Mare, that dusty diploma just ain’t what she used to be.
We were raised to expect the world, only to have the rug pulled from under us. Instead we graduated into the worst economy since 1930. National student debt has risen to over a trillion dollars—that’s triple what it was when I graduated in 2002.
This is hardly news. It is, however, why one in three 25- to 34-year-olds have found themselves in the exquisitely degrading position of having to move back in with their parents. Your kids aren’t moving back in with you just because you hobbled them with militant parenting and unrealistic expectations about the future. They’re doing it because they’re flat broke with a five-figure albatross hanging round their necks. It’s a jungle out there.
They call this the Boomerang Generation? What? Boomerang Generation? More like Bangarang Generation, am I right? Jack Weinberg coined “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30” in 1965. 30 years later, the de facto Lost Boys leader Rufio raised the stakes: “All grown-ups are pirates. (*smiling*) We kill pirates.”
You could argue that this is all simply part of some larger, generational Oedipal thing whereby every group of 20-somethings resents its elders, but it’s not just that. Sure, there’s the typical post-adolescent existential malaise and overall Peter Pan Syndrome that’s been around since before Hamlet—Benjamin Braddock, sulking around in The Graduate (1967) and so on. The Baby Boomers can scratch their heads and cry “Hipster” all they want, but at the end of the day, Benjamin Braddock got to pick himself up, enter a more or less intact economy, and do whatever the hell he pleased. (“One word: Plastics“.) Those bootstraps are worn out now.
So one day I finally did the math and realized that every single month, I was throwing $200 out the window on loan interest. Then I thought about what I had to do to earn $200. And then I called up Sallie. The ensuing conversation was surreally degrading and even unexpectedly emotional—like when I realized, with something of a lump in the throat, that this burden could easily outlive me. Would this debt be like the radio music after the car crash? The cockroaches after the H-bomb? The parasite outliving the host?
“Ok, ok, but what about this?” I say, pacing the floor, clutching my forehead with my free hand. “And Jesus, I can’t believe I’m even about to ask this, but what happens when I die? What if I die before these loans are paid off? It’s entirely possible. Do they transfer to my family? To my children?”
I didn’t have any children (couldn’t afford them), but I was suddenly taking in all this information with the gravitas of an Old Testament edict—what would befall my sons, and my sons’ sons, and so on. But what that phone call really felt like was a diagnosis I was terrified would be hereditary. Of course, I was just uninformed. The debt would stay with me. Contagion contained.
An earlier post likened this situation to the Mafia, while Matt Sapp’s related article broke down the latest data on SLABS and student debt profiteering. I’m writing this from an admittedly much more subjective place—not because the statistics aren’t staggering, even heartbreaking on their own, and not because I’m solely interested in belly-aching over the diminishing returns of a liberal arts degree nowadays. I’m writing this because it makes me sick.
Now to be sure, I went to college plenty naïve, my head full of lofty ideas on the virtues of education for its own sake and so on. The university was a kind of hallowed space for me, though never quite a sacred cow. I’m tempted to write some Action Movie line like “The moneychangers are back in the temple, and it’s table-flippin’ time,” but what’d be the point with neither money nor influence to back it up?
As proof of putting my money where my mouth was, I even got a Creative Writing degree with an M.A. in Literary Studies to boot. I literally ask people if they “want fries with that.” That’s not my point.
My point is that you don’t get to do this to a whole goddamn generation. We’ve been had. We entered college as part of a good-faith arrangement with the understanding that we’d have a seat at the table afterward. Not so. And not because of some Act of God like plague or blight or earthquake—no, because of a thoroughly misbehaving, exploitative elder class who should have known better. A society doesn’t get to cannibalize its youth like this and expect to survive intact. It weakens our country.
This isn’t asking the Baby Boomers to let us win at Monopoly. This is us just asking for a fighting chance—to have a home, a family, a life. We’re still asking nicely for now. We haven’t forgotten the hammers.