Cum laude, my diploma reads — “with honor.” But cum debitum, “with debt,” is a bit more accurate.
Collectively, América’s student borrowers owe $1.7 trillion. On average, each graduating senior this year is beginning their life around $37,000 in the hole.
That looks like a lot, but when you’re living with student debt, you look at that number and don’t even flinch. The debt is so normal it’s like an inside joke for pretty much everyone in my generation. Except we’re the punch line.
I graduated class of 2015 from a private, liberal arts college — a “most selective” one, U.S. News and World Report assures me. It was also an expensive degree, Sallie Mae reminds me. Monthly.
Yes, I chose to go to a private, expensive college. There was a calculus there, and one part of it was “I liked the feeling of it.”
I know, this type of sentimental idealism is a privilege. It’s no surprise I came out with the equally sentimental notion that I wanted to do non-profit work — which makes it that much harder to pay those loan bills.
It’s baffling to my Filipino parents. They didn’t cross the ocean and consign themselves to discrimination and demeaning jobs because they liked the “feel of it” — or even on the promise that their lives would be better. They did it on the promise that my life would be better. And that I wouldn’t owe anyone anything.
They could live underwater, they decided — but they at least expected their children to take a breath of fresh air. Well, sometimes it feels like the air is polluted. And the water is teeming with loan sharks.
So much so that some companies — among them many banks, financial institutions, and other large for-profit businesses — have begun including student loan repayment assistance in their salary packages.
I have to admit it’s tempting, especially since the Trump administration wants to end a federal program that would forgive the student loans of people who commit to public service work.
What’s the alternative, after all? Having a non-profit career in something you care about can require years of barely remunerated labor: an unpaid internship, volunteer work, a minimum-wage second job, or a salary that barely meets the threshold for a living wage.
Prioritizing a career in something you care about, in addition to paying rent and groceries, requires consigning yourself to a debt you’ll live with until you have children. That is, if you have children — since you don’t want to deal with their student debt either.
It’s not surprising to me that some of my classmates decide to return to school — maybe if they add more letters to their degree they’ll magically land a job they’re passionate about with a salary that can pay the bills.
It’s also not surprising that some of my peers decide to join the other side, cashing in on connections and scooping up those high-paying corporate jobs. But what happens when you have a generation of people trained to enter the public service entering Wall Street instead?
What a loss.
This is just one facet of the student debt crisis — others include putting off starting a family or buying a home. Too many of us are saddled with debt, and too many of us are structuring our lives around this ledger.
Alyssa Aquino is a Next Leader at the Institute for Policy Studies.