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The Student Debt Crisis and The Future of Generation Z

I’ve done the math. By the time I finish my undergrad, I will have accrued just over $50k in student loan debt. Considering I am planning on going to Law School, that number will only increase. While this figure might keep me up at night, I know that I got lucky. By picking a state school, I will graduate with the amount of debt most private schools charge in tuition per year. Had I decided to go private, I would have hit the $50k mark within my freshman year.

Higher education costs have skyrocketed in the last few decades. “After adjusting for inflation, federal student debt increased sevenfold from 1995 to 2017, rising from $187 billion to $1.4 trillion” reads a study published by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation in October of last year. The same study also revealed that less student debt is being payed back, despite the increase in loans being taken out. It doesn’t make sense that people not even old enough to buy alcohol can sign a life-time commitment to paying off crushing debt. The debt also disproportionately affects Black students, with nearly half owing $30k or more upon graduating. We have become so desensitized to debt as a society that these figures seem normal to us, but they aren’t. At the very least, they shouldn’t be, because debt like this has the capacity to leave a hard-working adult in financial ruin, running as fast as they can, still too slow to keep up with rising interest and regular payments.

I’m positive that if you grew up a young millennial or Gen Z kid, some adult told you at least once to get a job, work hard, and you won’t be in debt for school; that the financial problems of our generation are a direct result of too many Starbucks lattes and unnecessary avocado toast. The thing is, nobody is spending $60k on coffee a year. That would equate to roughly $165 dollars worth of coffee or avocados per day. Instead, however, of looking at the big picture, many people choose to shame those in debt by saying it’s the fault of the borrower. If I were to buy myself a latte everyday, it would still cost only a fraction of the semesterly tuition at my public college. Meanwhile, if an individual chooses not to go to college, for financial reasons or otherwise, they are shamed for that decision, too. To put it simply, things have changed: you can’t pay off your tuition with a summer job anymore. Especially not on the stipend you receive for the internship experience you allegedly need to get started in your career. Thus, a majority of people in my generation will be entering the workforce tethered to near-insurmountable levels of debt.

So, why are more students taking out larger loans to cover tuition? Because tuition prices have increased dramatically. The increase in debt is largely a response to the increase in cost of attendance, combined with the growing necessity of a higher degree. A much larger percentage of students are seeking Bachelor’s degrees than they were in the late eighties and early nineties. An article published in Forbes suggests that this has to do with the higher education system not allowing for the creation of more affordable school options. “All colleges must be accredited to access federal aid, but the accreditation system is typically hostile to new players. Accreditors often judge schools based on factors such as curriculum and faculty rather than whether they achieve better student outcomes for a lower price. This system disadvantages schools with newer and cheaper, but potentially more effective, educational models.”

Generally, the availability of something lends to its affordability, and with the amount of colleges in the United States, one would think the cost would start to decrease rather than increase as it has been doing, however accreditors are actively preventing schools from the possibility of federal aid. This means less competition and less incentive for colleges to lower their costs of attendance. Additionally, if schools were to be more transparent about their pricing, potential students would be able to make more informed decisions about the degrees they pursue and the loans they take out. Schools are often able to charge outrageous prices because “a college’s sticker price is set by its wealthiest students’ ability to pay — and the wealthiest students never take out loans” explains David Feldman, author of and economics professor at William & Mary. With federal aid decreasing, students are forced to pay more out of their pockets to compensate for what the state won’t give.

This cycle needs to change. If we desire an educated society with a competitive, skilled workforce, we need affordable higher education. The debt crisis is real, and it will only get worse unless we amend the educational model that allows it. Poverty should not be punished by slapping on more debt.

Ali is the social media manager for the Buffalo chapter of Her Campus. She is a Political Science major with an affinity for crooked media podcasts and bad movies. She hopes she will one day learn how to take care of plants.
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