Credit card debt, mortgages, auto loans; sometimes life seems like a never-ending nightmare of owing people money. We learn early. As a 9-year-old, I remember begging my mom to buy me a sequin blue dress from the mall. My mom bought me the dress—but put a note saying, “Mikaela owes Mom $15” on the fridge. That early lesson in money-lending stuck with me. But it could do nothing to prepare me for the thousands of dollars in student debt I took on as a college student.
I made an effort to choose a “cheap” college. In high school, I spent my Saturday afternoons thumbing through a fat college guide from the local library, and ear-marking possibilities. Annual private school tuition rates starting at $40,000 made public schools sound enticing. But even public school tuition required me to take out student loans.
A recent statistical roundup from Mother-Jones illustrates just how burdensome the cost of today’s college educations are. Adjusting for inflation, the cost of a four-year college has increased by 44 percent in the last 12 years alone. Meanwhile, the median household income (also adjusted for inflation) has dropped by 9 percent. Women continue to make up the majorities on college rosters, about 60 percent female to 40 percent male on average. And we continue to lag behind men once we’re in the workforce, with full-time working women earning 82 percent of what their male counterparts do.
Most colleges don’t have enough aid to go around. Between 2000 and 2012, government spending on public education dropped by 30 percent — even as enrollment increased by 34 percent. Students like me have taken on loans to make up the difference.
Even as the government allots less money towards student financial aid, public colleges have jacked up the price of tuition with the expectation that students will receive aid or scholarships. Many colleges are viewing high tuition as a marketing ploy: customers assume that more expensive items have more quality. If you increase the cost of the college, you increase the desirability of the college. Let’s hope that’s not true.
Today’s Americans owe almost $1 trillion in student loans– 310% of what Americans owed one decade ago. Even if you don’t have student debt, student debt affects you. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau warns that student loans have created a “drag on the recovery.”
Americans with student debt don’t want to put an additional strain on the still-struggling economy. We work hard, clip coupons, watch for sales, and do our best to spend responsibly. I had the privilege of learning about money-management at an early age—and I still work multiple jobs. We want our shot at the American Dream, just like everybody else.
So please be kind to the loan-swamped twenty-something working at Walmart or pouring your coffee. Don’t dismiss our struggle. And teach your children about personal finance. It helps.