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Generation Debt 

For many, four years of college means decades of concessions

click to enlarge Marisol Ybarra found herself seduced by easy credit. - 2006 KRYSTI SPENCE
  • 2006 Krysti Spence
  • Marisol Ybarra found herself seduced by easy credit.

Marisol Ybarra resisted temptation as long as she could.

She resisted the vibrant, bold fliers promising fun and freedom, featuring beaming students blessedly released from the weight of financial burdens. She resisted the smiling coeds about the campus and their soundly convincing pitch: Just a quick signature on the dotted line and you'll never have to eat ramen noodles again!

But eventually, the twentysomething Ybarra was seduced.

And then she went a little crazy. At one point, the cash-strapped Ybarra had almost 10 credit cards, with a combined debt of nearly $20,000. When her student loans didn't cover the cost of tuition, she charged it. When she couldn't afford books and supplies, she charged it. When she didn't have the cash for food, she charged it.

"They were giving them to me like candy," she recalls of the credit card companies.

Now a senior at Wayne State in Michigan, Ybarra has managed to shave her credit card debt down to $3,000. But she now must contend with more than $20,000 in student loans.

Generation Debt has arrived. According to one study, two-thirds of today's college graduates will pick up their diploma along with a load of student loan debt the average amount is $20,000. At the same time, young people are racking up massive amounts of credit card debt.

According to a study by the Nellie Mae Corp., a student loan company, in 2002 the average college senior had six credit cards, with a total balance of more than $3,200; one in five students had a credit card debt between $3,000 and $7,000. Often, these charges are for basic living expenses like food and gas and sometimes, tuition.

"We now require young people to go into debt to have a better future," says Tamara Draut, author of Strapped: Why America's 20-and-30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead. "We've gone from helping young people pay for college to helping them borrow."

Misery loves company

On July 1, parents and students across the country issued a collective groan of despair when the interest rate for Federal Stafford Loans the basic student loan rose from 5.3 percent to 7.14 percent. Meanwhile, tuition rates have continued their steady climb. A study conducted by the nonprofit, nonpartisan group Project on Student Debt found that tuition and fees at public universities have risen 57 percent in the past five years alone (after adjusting for inflation).

Some of the Project on Student Debt's other findings:

At public, four-year institutions, 62.4 percent of seniors are graduating in debt. Of those, half owe more than $15,000 in student loans.

At private four-year schools, 73.9 percent of seniors graduate in debt; of those, 10 percent owe $40,000 or more.

Overall, one-quarter of 2004 graduates borrowed more than $25,000 a figure that excludes any additional loans taken out by parents.

Some 66.4 percent of four-year college students (public and private) borrowed in 2004.

Project on Student Debt associate director Lauren Asher says students are forced to make tough choices that affect both their education and their overall quality of life.

"There's been a shift in the way we pay for higher education in this country," Asher says. "Our system assumes that student loans can and will meet the gap and that's no longer the case."

Debt's hidden costs

Stress, bad credit, even potential bankruptcy these are all the obvious results of debt. But student debt can mean delaying important life decisions.

"When young people are saddled with debt, they can't buy a house, take entrepreneurial risks, take low-paying but necessary jobs," Asher says.

Earlier this year, the Public Interest Research Group examined how rising debt would affect graduates pursuing public service careers. The study found that 23 percent of public college and 38 percent of private college graduates would have unmanageable debt as starting teachers; 37 percent of public and 55 percent of private college graduates would have unmanageable debt as starting social workers.

According to Draut's book, the average 25-to-34-year-old spends nearly 25 cents of every income dollar on debt payments more than double what people the same age spent in 1989.

In a March 13 article about student debt in The Nation, columnist Nicholas von Hoffman was clearly bothered by the impact of college loan debt on young people. "Many of them are going to go childless," he speculates, or will have fewer children, starting later than they otherwise would have.

Von Hoffman goes as far as to question whether there would have been a civil rights movement if an earlier generation of young people had been saddled with such a need to borrow.

"Burdened with debt and desperate to have and keep a job, there is no way they can take a wild year off and certainly no time for protesting, organizing or causing the kind of social and political trouble young people cause from time to time."

He then goes on to plead, "Will somebody get angry and start yelling?"

They are. Among them: Project on Student Debt, Commission on the Future of Higher Education, studentdebthelp.org, studentdebtalert.org, and campus-specific groups and protests.

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., have introduced legislation that would halve the interest rate on new college loans. According to the nonprofit group Campaign for America's Future, this legislation would save the average student borrower in Colorado $4,976 annually.

In a press release, the group writes, "Despite the positive impact this change would have on families struggling to pay for college, the Republican majority has refused to take action on either bill."

Debt consolidation consultant Howard Dvorkin would like to see a mandatory fiscal education class at the high school level, covering everything from the working of credit cards to student loans. Many groups are calling for Congress to increase the maximum amount allowed in the Pell grant, the most common grant award to low- and middle-income students.

Draut is among them. She believes government and financial institutions need to step up, and at least meet students halfway.

"Personal responsibility is an issue," she says, "but that needs to be matched by social responsibility."

Sarah Klein is culture editor of Metro Times in Detroit, where a version of this article originally appeared.

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