Student debt comes home

The latest numbers from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York show student loan debt has reached $1.2 trillion, four times the amount it was in 2004. For the Millennial generation who stepped into the job market mid-recession, these sobering numbers probably aren't surprising.

Last year, a branch of Occupy Wall Street called Strike Debt, bought and forgave almost four million in student loans held by students from Corinthian Colleges, one of the biggest for-profit college chains, which recently closed its doors without warning and filed for bankruptcy. The company was under scrutiny for over-charging students for poor-quality classes and misrepresenting its job placement rate, and by shutting down, it left many students without degrees but deeper in dept. Now that Corinthian’s unethical practices have been laid bare, Tuesday’s petition asking the Department of Education to cancel debt owed to colleges violating state law is one good step, but the legal case is complicated.

Proposals for addressing the crisis of student debt range from the relatively modest (easing the requirements for debt forgiveness in cases of fraud found in Obama’s proposed Student Aid Bill of Rights), to the sweeping, as Bernie Sanders’s proposal to address the root cause of student debt by making college tuition-free. Regardless, some kind of action is needed.

The more burdensome a college graduate’s debt obligation, the more difficult it is to establish a path toward economic security – building savings, for example, or buying a house – and to enter stabilizing relationships or start a family. Student debt also affects the well-being of the previous generation, as parents rally to help their children, sometimes by tapping into their home’s equity or retirement savings. And, when the time comes, who are they supposed to sell their homes to when an entire generation of graduates is too constrained by debt to buy? There are also new numbers on how rising tuition and student debt disproportionately hurts minorities. Hollis Phelps in Commonweal last year addressed this very topic: “In a cruel twist, the very means undertaken by my students to get themselves out of poverty threaten to continue that poverty through the debt that they now owe.” What might have once seemed like a young-person’s problem (and perhaps a privileged young-person’s problem) is now more widely felt.

We should understand the student debt crisis alongside the seriously weakened prospects for job growth that early Millennials faced upon graduation. As the first Millennial wave graduated, job definitions were changing as industries shifted and automation spread, and thanks to the recession, even the jobs that were supposed to be there as entrees to the middle-class were gone, or greatly diminished. Companies relied increasingly on contract labor to defray costs, including adjunct positions at universities (which didn’t help the students who went to graduate school hoping to ride out the economic downturn). All this meant that the “foot in the door” college was expected to provide meant something very different than it used to. If you could get an entry-level position, advancement in the same workplace over a long period of time was no longer a solid prospect. And as many discovered, an unpaid internship began to increasingly qualify you for… a different internship—a point that has even made its way into Hillary Clinton’s speeches (though apparently her foundation's policies don't necessarily reflect that concern).

Despite the occasional accusation of generational flightiness, which ignores these economic factors, Millennials say they want to make the same things happen as their parents did: a home, a stable partnership, and enough stability to raise kids. Policy changes will have to span the sprawling and slow-moving institutions of federal government, banks, and universities. But changes are slowly coming. In some states, companies that relied on unpaid internships to fill staff roles face greater restrictions. The complaints from Occupy Wall Street’s corridors about debt once sounded less urgent and pressing to the mainstream. Millennials faced a lack of institutional support to build a solid foundation, and now the problem is coming home.

Maria Bowler is the former assistant digital editor of Commonweal. 

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