The many faces of the student loan crisis
Special to Philanthropy Journal
In late 2011, student loan debt reached a catastrophic $1 trillion in America and continued to rise, as did countless headlines broadcasting the latest depressing milestones and Congressional actions (or lack thereof). These articles never fail to grab attention with alarming statistics that announce the average debt amounts, number of delinquencies and percentage of Generation Y unemployed and living at home as they struggle to make student loan payments.
But beyond the copious amounts of data gathered by government and crunched by organizations, there has been a very personal approach to this topic, showing the human faces behind the statistics. Many student loan borrowers want to share their stories and publish personal narratives in online newspapers and blogs. Unlike the people who quietly left their homes during the foreclosure crisis, many people with student debt want to be heard. Of course, these are very different scenarios. People can walk away from their homes. They can’t walk away from student loans, though, not even in bankruptcy.
Student Body of America Association (SBAA), a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, produced a documentary film about this country’s challenges with the high cost of college education and student loan debt that escalated to devastating heights after the recession ravaged the job market. Titled The Fallen American Dream, the documentary focuses on the perspective of student loan borrowers whose lives are so affected by this debt that the promise of the American Dream is called into question by a generation.
The documentary captures Millennials marching in protest of their student loan debt. They are justified in their frustration. The Project on Student Debt showed two-thirds of 2011 college graduates carried an average of $26,600 in student debt, more than any cohort before them. But this does not even begin to paint a complete picture of all student loan borrowers.
Of the 2.2 million student loan borrowers ages 60 and older, 115,000 retirees have had Social Security checks garnished by the government due to student loan delinquency, according to MarketWatch. Yes, that’s right — retirees, as in senior citizens, have student loans, too. Many borrowed for their education but also to help children and grandchildren with the skyrocketing costs of higher education.
Student loans are burdening Americans of all ages — Gen Y, Gen X and even Baby Boomers. SBAA produced Student Body TV, a reality television pilot reel that illustrates the wide range of individuals who struggle to pay the high cost of college tuition to compete in today’s lackluster job market. The program is dedicated to educating the public to be better prepared when making choices about their education and related financial decisions and obligations.
High school and college students, graduates and dropouts shared their stories with SBAA online and at the auditions in Phoenix, Ariz. These personal stories are important in raising awareness and understanding as to just how much of a problem student debt has become for so many Americans. While statistics may shock us, it can be easy to dismiss the staggering numbers as affecting people who were irresponsible or foolish, somehow deserving of their fate.
Sure, there may be cases of reckless choices. But when we see and hear these stories told by the individuals, it’s mostly people just like our friends, neighbors and co-workers. Actually, there’s a good chance you see yourself in these stories. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports approximately 37 million student loan borrowers in the United States. These people followed the advice long endorsed by our schools and society — that student loans are the best debt you can have.
But according to a recent Forbes article, one-third of Millennials regret going to college because of student loans. This is unfortunate, because a college degree is still the ticket to economic opportunity with graduates earning substantially higher earnings, as recently reported by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. However, there are caveats such as occupational choice. Less educated people in higher-paying occupations can earn more than people with a degree in occupations that pay less.
But with one-third of a generation regretting their college education, this is a true indicator of a real national problem. This dilemma no longer affects “just” the 37 million student loan borrowers but everyone. We all need to work together to overcome this obstacle.
Amy Mintz is the founder and president of Student Body of America Association, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. For more information, visit www.studentbodyofamerica.org