We’ve all seen the staggering student loan debt statistics: It averages more than $20,000 and 69% of Millennials have student loan debt, according to the Federal Reserve of New York.
What the numbers don’t tell us is what is going on in Millennials’ minds before they take on this debt.
I recently moderated a live focus group of Millennials during the Texas Career Colleges Annual Conference. The participants were a variety of Millennials who were in the work force full time, part time, or currently attending school (either four-year college, trade school or apprenticeship). The decisions they were making or had already made about student loans was greatly affected by the socio-economic status of their parents who were hit hard during the recession. The post-recession legacy is impacting their career options.
When asked about her student loans, Erica, 31, said, “Getting the money was too easy. I took out more than I needed. I wish I had gotten a part-time job instead.” Now Erica has to work extra hours as an x-ray technician to repay those loans.
Another participant, Lauren, 23, had a similar sentiment. “ I wish I hadn’t taken out a student loan,” Lauren said. “Looking back now, I should have gotten a part-time job. I didn’t understand how much I would be paying.”
This advice seems to be catching on as one of the other participants, Robert, 19 explained. “I have older roommates and they told me how hard it is to pay back student loans so I’m working part-time and going to community college before I transfer to a regular college. I’m paying as I’m going with some help from my mom.”
For Erica and Lauren, the underlying truth is that a trade school was a much more affordable option for them because their parents were unable to help with school costs. While these two young ladies have good-paying trade jobs and may even be doing better economically than some of their friends with four-year degrees, they felt their options were limited because of money. Sometimes they wonder whether they made the right decision not to pursue a four-year degree.
Students with less affluent parents are finding it much harder to make the leap to a tradition degree because of the debt load and are choosing community college or trade schools. According to a Harvard study, 52% of African-Americans age 18-25 said their financial circumstances play a very important role in their school choice compared to only 38% of whites.
These statistics are also consistent indicators of the growing wage gaps we are seeing in the U.S., especially among minorities. In the last two decades the cost of college tuition increased four times faster than inflation (Bloomberg News “Cost of College Degree in U.S. Soars 12 fold: Chart of the Day). With fewer government loans available and more expensive/less forgiving private loans the only option for many, we will continue to see younger cohorts of this generation struggle with student loan debt or live with these limited career options because of affordability.