Debt to Society

Photo by Sam Kaplan for Refinery29

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical.” This famous line from beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s classic 1956 poem “Howl” sought to capture a generation of people disillusioned by the industrialization of America, driven mad by the poverty, violence, commercialization, and filth of modern society.

But like all great and timeless works, these lines still ring true today in my generation, through the disillusionment and madness of the changing landscape of America for millennials: My generation, buried alive in student loan debt. Colleges are extremely expensive. They are so unaffordable, in fact, that for many people to even have the opportunity to attend college, they must take out student loans. Eighteen-year-olds with no income to speak of incur tremendous debt before they’re even allowed to legally drink. The result is that millennials have entered the workforce saddled with potentially a lifetime of debt.

Before the crash of the stock market in 2008, millennials were raised on an assertion that we could be anything we wanted to be. Follow the typical post-high school trajectory and you’d have it made: Go to college, get a degree, get a job, get a house, live your life comfortably. Study your passion because all you really need is that diploma to make that paper. And so we followed that path, borrowing money to get us there. And then America changed and those promises crumbled like sand castles in high tidethere were fewer job opportunities and less money to be made. Companies were laying people off, not hiring.

Look, I “followed my passion” and “lived my truth” and got a degree in Electronic Media and Film because I was a dreamer with no concept of reality. I was textbook millennial: Helicopter parents, completely entitled, thought I was smarter than everyone else, would rather die than make my own doctor’s appointments, believed the rules didn’t apply to me, couldn’t handle criticism of any kind, the whole nine yards. And I was never a plannerI could be anything I wanted to be, right? I’d learn how to make films and then go traipsing off to Los Angeles and be a film director, see you at the Oscars in four years!

To be clear, I don’t regret my degree at all, and there was a lot that I got out of college. But it did little to prepare me for the real world, and I had $80,000 of debt upon graduation with a six-month head start before I had to start making payments. I could tell you all about the French New Wave, and what verisimilitude was, and I could load a 16mm film camera, but I had no concept of healthcare, a 401K, or what constituted a livable salary. I didn’t know what a deductible was until I was twenty-two. When my parents explained a mortgage to me, I almost threw up. I had to take a nap when I first compared my net salary to my gross income. Living is hard and I’m not even enjoying it!

I know that I sound cynical, and I am, but I’m also pragmatic. My experience is not the universal experience, but it’s also not unique. Looking around at my friends and colleagues, we are all in the same boat. We are smart, well-rounded, and talented, with a lot to offer the world. And yet, we can barely survive in this world with so much debt weighing us down.

I have seen student loan debt cripple people. I have seen people who had no other choice but to defer on their loans because they couldn’t afford the minimum monthly payment. But even with the deferment (which can only be temporary), they were still responsible for the interest accruing, resulting in more debt piling onto the debt they already could not pay. The only solution was to take out more loans and put necessities like groceries on credit cards, work two jobs, hustle like hell and still barely scrape by. Falling farther and farther behind until they were crushed and drowning and nearing bankruptcy. And at that point, was a Master’s degree in creative writing even worth it?

Of course there is a lot of value in higher education. Colleges teach you how to thinkhow to analyze, and research, and make educated arguments, and come to informed conclusions. There are connections to be made, intellectual conversations to be had, and great professors who care about their students’ education. But higher education can’t be the only thing we place value in.

While there are many jobs that can’t be done without a higher level of learning and testing—engineering, speech-language pathology, computer programming, etc.there are also many jobs that can be performed successfully with nothing more than the skills you learn on the job, particularly entry-level positions. There are plenty of jobs that someone could be good at with an Associate’s degree, or even just a certification in a skill (graphic design, for instance, requires you to know how to use the software, not a Master’s degree). Most of the practical skills that I possess were learned from doing my job. And for all careers, you just have to get your foot in the door first and build experience from there.

But here’s the rub: Most jobs won’t even give you an interview unless you have at least a Bachelor’s degree. In this job climate, when entering the workforce you could be earning as little as $30,000 a year (if you’re lucky.) Which means you may have gone to college for four years to get a Bachelor’s degree so you could get a job that won’t pay you enough to pay back the college education you had to get in order to even get this job!

We need to stop placing the baseline employment value of a person only in the degree they received. Community colleges have great teachers; an Associate’s degree should still be enough to get people an interview, even when going up against applicants with a Bachelor’s. We need to stop frowning at community college and considering it a lesser quality of learning (many teachers who teach at four-year colleges also teach at community colleges!) We need to stop looking at trades as less ambitious, or seeing apprentices in plumbing as less intellectual than someone going for their Master’s in cultural studies (you don’t know what books that plumber checks out of the library!) We need to stop telling teenagers that there is a right path, one that they should take.

There is a lot that is broken with the education system in America, and it won’t be fixed overnight or maybe ever. But one easy way to start changing things even a little is to give opportunities to more people, not just to the ones with a Bachelor’s degree on their resume. College is great and I loved my experience. But I would also love to retire one day, and I can barely put anything towards that while paying off student loan debt. And so, we have to embrace the merit of all levels of education, and of all fields of study. Going into medicine, engineering, law, or tech may be where all the money is, but the world needs more philosophers! And historians! And women’s studies graduates! And math teachers! And museum curators! And ice cream shop owners! And a million other things! I’m not saying don’t go to college. I’m saying to just really, really think about what you want, and tread carefully. Can you make your dreams come true without incurring massive amounts of student loan debt? If you can, follow that path. Because student loan debt destroys lives. Don’t put your worth in your degree. Truly, it’s not worth it.

By Kaitlin Konecke

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