By BEN R. WILLIAMS
I graduated from high school in 2003 and went straight to college. There was never any question I would do so.
I’m not saying that to brag; it’s just that for many of the members of my generation, college was never an option, it was an expectation. That’s changed a bit in recent years; today I routinely see posts on social media encouraging young people to pursue a trade. That certainly wasn’t the case when I was in high school, though.
From the time I was in middle school, the adults told me and my classmates that we had to start thinking about college. If you didn’t go to college, you were condemning yourself to a life of back-breaking misery. You would have to get a job at Amalgamated Ditch digging holes all day and then refilling them, and you would never get paid above minimum wage. You didn’t want that, did you? Of course you didn’t! College was the only way.
Now of course, we were told that we would have to take out loans to go to college. But we were also told that paying back those loans was never going to be a big deal. Once we left college with our fancy degrees, we would be able to get great jobs and pay those loans back promptly. It was all but promised to us.
High schoolers are smarter than we give them credit for being, but they’re also inexperienced and naive; how could they not be? And so we all trusted the teachers and guidance counselors and older folks when they told us that college and the loans that came with it was the only path forward.
I graduated in 2007 with my B.A. in English, and I don’t regret it for a minute. I knew that a degree in English wasn’t going to lead to the most lucrative job offers, but it was my passion. And in any case, I was made to understand that it didn’t really matter what my degree was in; the important thing was that I had one.
After graduation, I struggled to find a job. I’d had the poor fortune to graduate on the cusp of the The Great Recession, the first of several once-in-a-lifetime economic crises that my generation has had to endure. I couldn’t get a good job because I was under-experienced; I couldn’t get a crummy job because I was overqualified. I eventually found a decent job and kicked off about five years of chronic underemployment before I was able to finally start doing things I enjoyed and (about five years after that) make a living wage.
I’m one of the very lucky ones. I only struggled for a decade and my student loans are finally paid off. Many of my friends aren’t so lucky. They had to take out far more loans than I did and are now saddled with tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands in debt. The interest rates are so awful that they can never get ahead.
Consider my friend Ashleigh. “I took out $58,000 in loans for six years of school,” she told me recently. “In the last ten years I’ve never missed a payment and now I owe a grand total of $72,000.”
Ashleigh’s situation is absurd, but it certainly isn’t uncommon. She’s not the only person I know who has consistently paid their student loans and now owes more than they borrowed. It’s defeating.
However, you know what’s even more defeating? My generation was told that if we didn’t go to college, we would end up flipping burgers. And now, when we struggle to find decent-paying jobs in our fields, those same people say, “What, are you too good to flip burgers?”
The college loan situation is just one of many false bills of goods that were sold to my generation, but it’s also one of the most crippling. I literally know a guy who told his student loan company that if they didn’t reduce his monthly rate, they would never get any money at all because he would die of starvation. They grudgingly lowered the rate.
President Joe Biden ran on the promise of helping people who are saddled with student loan debt, and right now, he has the power to sign an executive order eliminating between $10,000 and $50,000 worth of debt per person. He could also simply extend the federal student debt relief deadline that is currently slated to end on Jan. 31, 2022. In all likelihood, he isn’t going to do either, and people who were struggling to pay back their outrageous loans before COVID turned the world upside down and triggered the fastest inflation we’ve seen in nearly 40 years are going to struggle even harder.
All of this is made even more galling by the fact that as I write this, Biden is on the cusp of signing a $768 billion defense bill. No one is questioning whether or not we have the money to pay for our bloated military-industrial complex, but when it comes time to help U.S. citizens, we can’t possibly afford it.
What’s the solution? To any high schoolers reading this, I offer the following bit of advice: if you want to learn a trade, do it. I’m 37 and I’m still thinking about becoming an electrician. However, if you want to go to college, go ahead and take out those loans.
Don’t worry about paying them back, though. Before anyone can collect, one of two things will happen: either the entire college loan system will collapse under its own weight, or society will. Either way, free money!