Originally published in The DePaulia 11-16-14.
Around 6:40 a.m. on May 8, 2012, America reached a milestone that few talked about, and even fewer celebrated. It was at that exact moment, according to estimates by FinAid.org, when outstanding student loan debt in America reached $1 trillion. Today, that estimate stands at over $1.2 trillion — higher than outstanding credit card or auto loan debt, and likely higher than combined student debt all over the world. The majority of that debt, as much as 43 percent of it, is carried by people younger than 25 years old.
This age cohort comprises most of what has become the latest and most talked-about generational buzzword: Millennials. Like every demographic classifier that has come before it, the definition of a Millennial is ambiguous and largely up to interpretation. Neil Howe and William Strauss, the academic duo who initially coined the term, say it applies to anyone born between 1982 and 2004. And with the forging of a new socio-demographic market group came the requisite generalizations in the media.
Going by the assumptions posited by a number of experts, professionals, researchers, columnists, or really anyone over 40 with an internet connection, the typical Millennial is “overoptimistic,” “only takes ‘yes’ for an answer,” had “childhoods full of trophies and adulation,” is “totally incoherent,” “materialistic,” and most frighteningly, “entitled.”
This less-than-endearing narrative persists despite a decidedly bleak outlook, especially for the youngest Millennials. Unemployment for 20- to 24-year-olds stands at 10.5 percent, nearly twice the national average of 5.8 percent. Factor that into data that show a steep decline in wages for Millennials during and since the recession, and one could reasonably make the argument that this is the first generation that will be worse off than their parents.
Growing up in a time of global economic and political upheaval, it’s clear that Millennials didn’t choose this situation for themselves any more than they chose to live with their parents after college. Every generation has its fair share of slackers and overachievers, but the majority will do their best to live comfortably and within their means. Seemingly absent from the discussion of the absent-minded twenty-something are the stories of those who defy their ancestor’s appointed stereotypes, who work hard to get by in a world that has not only stacked the odds against them, but also piled plenty of blame on their backs. It’s worth wondering whether these people are just exceptions, or just a few examples of a truly exceptional generation, one entitled to something more than critical thinkpieces.
The end of each day for Emily Becker, a caretaker for the Jumpstart after-school program at the Erie House, is heralded with snacks. In a ritual that the four-, five- and six-year-olds she teaches would be envious of, Becker and her coworkers sit around a table adorned with Lay’s potato chips, chunky Chips-Ahoy and cherry Kool-Aid, the kind in the plastic bottles that snap open with an eagle-shaped pull tab.
“I haven’t had one of these since I was seven!” Becker exclaimed. It was her birthday, and this spread of treats was a welcome surprise. With her three coworkers and manager, she engaged in a warm-up activity to get the discussion going. Her manager, Missy, passed around pre-made sticky notes with questions that each person had to answer: “If money wasn’t an issue, what would you be doing right now?” “If you could relive any day in your life, what would it be?” Becker’s question, “If you could be anyone else, who would you be?” was answered without hesitation.
“So if I was a female, I would be Emma Watson, because it’s Emma Watson,” she said. “And if I was a male, I would be David Bowie because he’s super weird. But he’s my favorite.”
The discussion that followed concerned the children each of them work with, how they are progressing in their reading and writing, how well they play with each other or with their caretaker, and any problems or amusing events that transpired.
Much of this concerned the latter: the group talked at length about one child who had been known as something of a troublemaker, but today demonstrated a new skill he learned — meditation. This was a four-year-old who not only was able to control his temper (a rare feat at such an age), but also knew the word “meditation” and its basic process (sitting cross-legged on the floor, with eyes closed and palms together).
“So much of our imagination is lost when we grow up,” Becker said later. “It’s really cool to see them at this stage in their lives when everything is possible, everything is fun and they are just so open to learning. Sometimes,” she added with a laugh.
Becker is a first-generation college student at DePaul, where she is double-majoring in intercultural communication and sociology, with a minor in community service. Becker is one of an estimated 80 percent of college students who pay for some or all of their education. In her case, it’s all of it, and she pays for it on her own accord, rather than at the behest of her parents.
“At first they were kind of like, ‘why?’” Becker said, describing her parents’ reaction when she told them she would like to attend college without their financial support. “They are very supportive and wanted to help me, but they know I’m very strong-willed and that if I want to do something, I’m gonna do it.” Becker’s family includes two younger brothers, one of which has a disability that requires her mother to stay home, making her father the family’s main source of income. Because of their precarious financial situation, Becker saw it as her responsibility to ease the burden on her family. She also sees her education as more than a troublesome expense.
“I don’t think I can put a pricetag on the experiences I’m having,” she said. In addition to her job at JumpStart, Becker babysits several times per week, volunteers in the community and also has numerous grants and scholarships that she says cover most of the $34,000 yearly tuition for a full-time student at DePaul. In the two years she’s spent enrolled here, she has taken out about $15,000 in loans, and estimates that after graduation, she will owe between $30,000 and $40,000 in student debt. That’s slightly higher than the national average amount of student debt owed, which is $29,400. The average amount for a DePaul graduate in 2012 was $28,284. None of this really seemed to bother Becker, though.
“I know it sounds, naive, but I don’t like to think about it a lot,” she said. “Obviously money is important, but I just don’t want it to be a source of stress in my life. Especially when, right now, it’s not an issue.”
For many Americans, however, when it comes to earning a college degree, money is a big issue, and the situation may only be getting worse. It’s bad enough that outstanding student loan debt is now second only to mortgage debt. If it keeps growing at the current rate, on pace with skyrocketing tuition, student debt could hinder the American economy by preventing Millennials from saving for homes, cars and retirement. As a result, a number of bills have been proposed by Congress to stem the tide of student debt.
Perhaps the most promising was Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal — backed by a number of Democratic senators including Dick Durbin — that sought to refinance qualifying student loan debt to a lower interest rate. Due to a lack of Republican support, however, the bill stalled in September.
The student loan crisis is not lost on Illinois politicians either. After taking a big leap in previous years, current governor Pat Quinn vowed to allocate another $50 million to the Monetary Awards Program (MAP) grant. After failing to win reelection, any policy overhaul will likely come from governor-elect Bruce Rauner. His campaign released a long list of planned reforms for Illinois’s entire education system, which made clear that “every decision [regarding education funding] will be made in the context of improving career readiness.” Although the document paints a grim picture of the higher educational
landscape in Illinois — it says that Illinois ranks 45th in college affordability and that MAP grants have not kept pace with rising costs — Rauner’s solutions stress reducing wasteful spending, rolling back Quinn’s cuts to funding, and making career counseling more readily available to ensure “early intervention in a student’s academic choices.”
“The financial aid landscape is always changing, but we have no idea of how it will change in the future,” Cristina Castle, a financial aid advisor at DePaul, said, when asked how the new governor might affect funding for grants and scholarships. “We do try our best to help students in higher need, and a lot depends and how hard they want to work to find scholarships.”
Even if education reforms do come, they will be too late for Ashantis Jones, a third-year theater management student. She is still registered out of state, but even if she could’ve voted in the November 4 election, it would’ve been difficult.
“If I could’ve voted, it would’ve been a pain to try and vote, because I’m at class or work all day,” she said. Jones works at the admissions office in The Theatre School to support herself, while most of her tuition is subsidized through grants and scholarships. She hadn’t paid much attention to the election, but what she did hear wasn’t particularly persuasive.
“I am hearing mixed opinions, now knowing who won, and how we are going to be able to pay off student debt, I’m a little worried about that one.”
Growing up in a “two-town family” in Cleveland, Jones knew from the beginning that paying for college would be her sole responsibility, and she prepared for it diligently.
“I definitely did my homework before choosing the school I would be going to,” she said. “Compared to the people who are gonna be leaving school with $50,000 in debt, I’m doing excellent. I will be less than thirty [thousand dollars]. As far as paying it off, everybody has student loans and everybody pays it off eventually.”
Jones is confidant in her ability to manage her expenses, no doubt helped by her double minor in business administration and business management. But her need to prioritize her spending is something that still weighs on her mind “constantly.”
“Even looking at the people I work with, a lot of them do get support from their parents,” she said. “They can afford to maybe not work 5 hours and change their schedule because they want to go and do homework at that time. I don’t really have that option.”
Some students, like Mahdi Grady, know they could have it worse.
“I always ask people what their loans are, and from that I know my personal situation isn’t that bad,” he said. “Someone told me ‘aw dude I got loans over a hundred thousand dollars,’ or I’ve heard ninety thousand, sixty thousand. If I was in that situation it would seem very unfeasible.”
Grady works at Next Door Café, an initiative funded by State Farm Insurance that is part coffee shop, part community center. The oldest child to a single mother, he splits his time between Next Door, an internship, working as a receptionist in the DePaul Philosophy department, and classes. Between those three jobs, he estimates he works about 37 hours per week, and even with four classes, he finds it “pretty doable.”
“I get some support from back home, but it’s very limited,” he said, now taking his break during a Saturday night shift at Next Door. “It doesn’t make it very easy, but I couldn’t not work, or I would just be living hungry as hell.”
With his mother now having to support two sons attending private colleges, Grady does what he can to ease the burden. He estimates almost all of his tuition is covered by grants and scholarships, meaning he only has to take out about $8,000 in loans per year.
“I estimated I probably owe about 25-30K by the time I leave, but I guess that’s not too bad,” he said.
One DePaul graduate, Mina Igribozova, is now working to pay off her loans after graduating last year. She lives with her parents for now, which helps curb some of her expenses, but for her, it’s still not particularly rosy.
“My current job helps me make it, but I don’t have much left over to save,” she said. Igribozova borrowed about $9,000 for each year of school, and now pays $420 per month to cover the debt. Working in sales, much of her income is commission-based and therefore unpredictable. In a good month, she can earn $2,000 in take-home pay. Still, she worries about what the future holds.
“It was not difficult to find a job. It is, however, difficult to support myself with this job.”
If the opinion pieces are to be believed, there is hardly a soul in college working to support themselves. The reality of the situation is, as reality tends to be, much more complicated. Millennials may be “entitled” in some ways, but who can blame them?