Stop Fussing About Student Loans, and Find Gen Y a Job

Student debt is being compared to the housing crisis. Catastrophe? Imminent. We’re thrusting our kids into vast amounts of financial turmoil, and for what? Disaster. And while that may be true (education does need a transformation), debt is not the main issue on a young person’s mind.

“You would think that student loans are young people’s only priority,” argues New York Times columnist Charles Blow. “They’re not. In fact, a cleverly designed survey released this week by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics asked respondents ages 18 to 29 to choose between pairings of issues to determine which ones they felt were more important. Among domestic issues, creating jobs always won.”

Student debt wouldn’t be such a big deal if recent grads could find a job. Because the problem isn’t the loan, but the job to pay off the loan to start living life. You only care about paying off student debt if you’re ready to settle down, buy a house, get married, and have kids. But young people delay adulthood. We buy houses later. We get married later. We have kids later. So it doesn’t matter that paying off loans comes later too — if you have a job.

While there has been much ado about the cost of tuition – college debt has reportedly tripled since 1981 – students rarely pay the full tuition cost because scholarships and financial aid have risen as well.  “For the current school year, the average sticker price for tuition and fees at a private, nonprofit college is $28,500,” reports NPR writer Jacob Goldstein. “And yet, the average price students actually pay is less than half that — $12,970. That’s almost identical to the $12,650 that students paid, on average, in the 2001-2002 school year.”

Not to mention, college debt is a deliberate choice young people make. I’m from Illinois, but went out-of-state for school. My mother pleaded with me to go in-state. Same education, lower cost. Of course I knew she was right, but every college student knows the price of higher education doesn’t simply include courses, room and board, but the experience of stepping out and being on your own. An experience I simply didn’t want to have in my hometown.

Many other young people have made similar choices. Kelsey Griffith, 23, attended Ohio Northern, a private college that costed her nearly $50,000 a year. “As an 18-year-old, it sounded like a good fit to me, and the school really sold it,” Ms. Griffith, a marketing major, told the New York Times. “I knew a private school would cost a lot of money. But when I graduate, I’m going to owe like $900 a month. No one told me that.”

You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t sympathize with Ms. Griffith. Smart enough to go to a private school, but can’t do basic math? I pity the marketing budget she’ll soon manage.

We deliberately choose to take on debt to get the best possible education. And while the same could be said of mortgage debt and our pursuit of the American Dream, unlike the the housing crisis, student loan interest rates are low, and the forgiveness level is high. If you don’t have a job, you can delay payments. If you’re experiencing economic hardship, you can delay payments. God forbid you want to go back to school and incur more debt, you can once again delay payments. The system does everything it can to help you get on your feet.

Personally, I went to a public school trading the corn of Illinois for the cows of Wisconsin. At the time, University of Wisconsin-Madison’s out-of-state tuition was the highest among Big Ten schools. The University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana (located in my hometown) was the lowest. My debt totaled around $12,300 (the average per borrower is $23,300, not the $60,000-$100,000 outliers often strut out in news stories). I paid it off earlier this year, in part, because I’ve been continuously employed since graduation.

Many other young people aren’t so lucky. A whopping fifty-three percent of recent college grads are jobless or underemployed, and that’s why we care eighty percent more about creating jobs over addressing social security, lowering the tax burden on Americans, income inequality, combatting climate change, reducing the role of big money in elections, or developing an immigration policy.

Not a generation to be down on our luck, we’ll take a paycheck where we can get it. Recent graduates are now more likely to work as waiters, waitresses, bartenders and food-service helpers than as engineers, physicists, chemists and mathematicians combined. Steve King of New Communications Research argues “the grim job market is another key reason more young Americans are pursuing work as independents (temps, freelancers, etc.).”

Gen Y just wants to work. So let us. Provide jobs that could change the educational system, the economy, the world, instead of fussing about student loans. Then Gen Y could pay our debts, and that would be energy well-spent.