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May 19 2014

College-Educated but Penniless

Patrice J. Lee

The debt young people incur to pursue higher education is increasingly becoming a millstone around their necks, holding them back from life experiences. The higher education bubble driven by access to government loans is a driving force behind this cycle that needs to be broken before the bubble bursts.

According to a Pew study, the median net worth of college graduates under 40 with student debt is only $8,700. The same group without college loans has a net work of $64,700. This doesn’t even count those who have advanced degrees.

What’s eating away at net worth is not just student loans though. These young people tend to have other debt such as car loans and credit cards. Overall, median total indebtness is $137,000 for college graduates with student loans compared to only $73,250 for their counterparts with no college debt.

The Daily Caller reports more:

How much is $8,700 these days? It’s not much. That amount of money will buy you a silver four-door 2003 Toyota Avalon XL with just fewer than 93,000 miles, for example.

Indebted twentysomething and thirtysomething Americans are also weighed down by other types of debt resulting from credit-card borrowing and auto loans in addition to their student-loan burden.

The massive debt frequently makes it difficult to save money for mortgage down payments, or obtain mortgage financing or begin to save for retirement.

On the bright side, college graduates do tend to make considerably more money per year compared to people who never graduated with a four-year degree.

Households with a “head of household” college graduate under 40 have an average annual income of $57,941. Households where no one has a college degree have a substantially lower yearly income of $32,528.

“College grads with student loans are benefiting from higher incomes because of their degrees, but about four in 10 borrowers are weighed down with a substantial amount of debt that extends beyond student loan debt,” said lead study author Richard Fry, according to the Times.

Last week we reported about the increasing joblessness that this year’s graduates are facing as 4 out 5 in the Class of 2014 have no job offer as they cross the graduation line. While it’s great that they can expect to have high incomes down the road, the economy has stretched the road out even farther than before.

Whether a college degree really pays off is a question that research has answered. It does. However, the student loan debt that graduates and their parents incur along the way is not discussed. As this research demonstrates, it’s become a millstone around the necks of young generations. When you consider those of us with advanced degrees, who used student loans to finance masters, PhDs, and juris doctorates and doctorate degrees, our net worth is likely in the red column.

Student loan debt used to be considered “good debt” to carry. It was something you know you’d pay off over the course of your working career through modest payments. In the meantime, as you worked and progressed in your career, a college graduate would still be able to purchase her first car, get married, save for a first home, start a family, and hit other social milestones that are part of adulthood. That’s no longer the case.

Who’s to blame? Well, personal responsibility is inescapable. Young people and their parents need to make wise financial decisions about how they will finance their educations and that may boil down to the schools a young person chooses to attend and at what cost. Is taking out a student loan the best option if a student could go to a different school and not incur as much –or any- debt but not have the same U.S. News & World Report college ranking?

And, maybe a four-year college is not the best option for every student. What about community colleges or two-year degrees? College may not be the best route to success for every student. What about a trade school or starting a business? The every kid to college mindset is a mental model that we need to break.

Government also plays a role here. The higher education bubble is being inflated by the easy access to the artificially low-interest student loans provided by the federal government. Colleges and universities know they can raise rates on tuition, room and board, and other fees, because students and parents can secure more federal money. If that was not the case, educators would have to cut rates instead of allowing them to rise annually in order to stay competitive.

This problem is not going away. It’s time to have tough conversations with our lawmakers and ourselves as more young people come of age in this economy.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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