By Michelle Zacarias
Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren recently made waves after she announced her idea to eliminate student loan debt and make all public colleges free. The plan would hypothetically cancel student loan debt for more than 95 per cent of borrowers, and would entirely cancel student loan debt for more than 75 per cent of Americans. The public reception has been quite positive, as might be expected, considering Americans now collectively owe more than $1.53 trillion in student loan debt.
Such a transformative policy, if it ever came to be, would drastically impact the daily life of millennials. With tuition and fees rising and good jobs becoming harder to find, student loan repayments are crushing their prospects for the future. Research suggests it takes an average of 19.7 years for the average four-year degree holder to pay off their loans in total. Millennial households with student loan debt have an average net worth of $29,087, compared with $114,376 for student loan-free households. They also have 46 per cent less in their savings and checking accounts (median balance of $5,500 vs $10,180 for those without student loans).
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, student debt “now comprises 69 percent of the debt side of their balance sheets” for an average 25- to 30-year-old. Which begs the question—How would eliminating student loan debt change the lives of a struggling generation?
Abby Billups is a mother, a wife, and crisis responder for Chicago’s Citizens For Change (CCC), an organization that provides support and referral services for the families of homicide victims. “When someone dies, if they get taken to one of the hospitals in Chicago, I go to the scene to provide the family with resources,” says the 28-year-old Family Support Specialist.
Billups is also enlisted in the United States Army Reserves as a chaplain assistant. She says her work in the reserves is similar to her full-time job. “We respond to mental health crises and suicidal ideation,” she says. “Anytime a soldier is having a problem, we counsel them and connect them with services, which is why I took that job in the first place.”
Billups is a first-generation college student who aspires to be a social worker. After graduating in 2012 from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Billups got a job as a case manager at the Association House of Chicago working on child welfare cases. While employed there, she realized she would eventually hit a ceiling in her line of work.
“I definitely need my master’s degree to move up…not just that, but I need to be clinically licensed if I want to do any type of clinical therapy.” Despite having over three years of casework experience and a work ethic that made her the go-to person at her former job, Billups was unable to get promoted without a higher degree. “Even though the supervisor had his master’s, he didn’t have the field experience,” she says, “I think that makes a huge difference, but either way you still need that piece of paper.”
Billups was previously enrolled in graduate school but had to drop out after two semesters. It quickly became overwhelming to split her time between school work and taking care of her infant son. Withdrawing, however, added an additional debt to her rising expenses. “I came out of undergrad with $30,000 in loans; the second time I came out with around $48,000, in addition to the fee that the school charged me for withdrawing past the deadline.”
Like many other Latino professionals, Billups says that she doesn’t see her communities represented in her line of work. “Once most social workers get their license, they stop working for nonprofits because they just don’t get paid enough.” The rising cost of higher education poses an issue for young academics of color—they can either chose to stay in a public service job and struggle with finances or accept a higher-paying position elsewhere. “There’s this huge need for mental health services on the south side of Chicago,” she reiterates, “but we just don’t have clinicians because we don’t get paid enough.”
Billups says that a legislative mandate to eliminate student loan debt would be a life changer and allow her to get her life back on track. “I’d have my credit score back, I’d invest and start saving—I really wish we had a house.”
Despite all the personal financial barriers she faces, Billups emphasizes the need to consider future generations as well. Above all else, she sees the push to eliminate student debt as a way to secure her son’s future. “I would invest in Noah’s education and start saving for him so that he doesn’t have to go through to what I went through.”
Dhara Shah, 29 is a Grad student with $80,000 of student loans. Dhara Shah was ecstatic when she was accepted to the School of Visual Arts in New York. The Chicago native spent ten years putting her biomedical engineering degree to use through community development and organizing work and was ready to pursue an MFA in Design for Social Innovation.
As an undergraduate student, Shah was fortunate enough to be awarded a four-year academic scholarship. Paired with the fact that she from a financially literate family—her father previously oversaw the financial aid process when her older brother attended college—Shah was able to graduate with only around $7,000 in student loans.
Shortly before applying to graduate school, Shah’s student loan debt was paid off in full. But now, the young former engineer is now approximately $70,000 back in the hole due to all the loans she has been forced to take on in order to attain her necessary master’s degree. Like many young professionals, graduate school was the only option for Shah to move up in her field of work. “I won’t be hired as a system designer in the social sphere without formal education to back it up—I need that piece of paper.”
Like many of her peers, Shah dreams of one day having a family, but the amount of debt she now owes places her in a compromising position. “I’m just really miserable, these loans have added so much stress to everything,” she says. “I’m getting married, and even thinking about planning for the wedding is overwhelming.” Studies have shown that millennials are not only getting married less than previous generations but also having fewer babies. These statistics are an indicator of the way in which financial insecurity is altering a generation’s choices.
One concern that Shah brought up was the fact that work in public service careers is often not well-rewarded. “The type of work I’m seeking to do won’t help me pay off these student loans,” she says, “I’m sucked into this cycle.” Furthermore, Shah says she grapples with the cost of school versus the quality of the education she is receiving. “I don’t feel like I’m getting $100,000 worth of education, I don’t feel like I’m getting my money’s worth.”
Regardless, the decision to ultimately attend graduate school came out of necessity. Shah aspires to co-create systems and policies that empower marginalized communities, and she is passionate about centering the voices of disenfranchised individuals through her work. “A lot of people in my situation would’ve just stayed an engineer,” she says, “but I was a terrible version of myself at my old job, I was so far away from the version of me who I wanted to me.” (IPA Service)
Courtesy: People’s World