By Susan Kemp
A couple months ago, a friend posted a photo on Facebook that really stuck with me. It was an open Internet browser with a screen that simply read:
“Congratulations! You’ve just completed your exit loan counseling!”
Of course, you have to imagine the “Congratulations!” in 72-point type.
She made a smug comment about the excitement she most certainly had in paying back her student loans, and a few of her recent grad friends chimed in about their impending doom.
No one really minds what’s said on Facebook. The real tension comes when these young adults are willing to go beyond their network of friends and say something to a larger audience.
The Huffington Post has a whole subsection on their website dealing with student loans. But when recent college graduates write op-ed’s — with the average student loan debt reaching $25,000 in 2010, there’s been quite a few — the comments are notoriously unsympathetic.
It’s as if the 22-year-old with $60,000 of debt (and the audacity to write about it) has become the poster child for the right’s definition of the “entitled liberal.” Why should we have to pay for your irresponsibility, the comments inevitably say. It’s the holier than thou mantra underlying every class reform discussion, and in recent college grads, the right has found their prodigal sons and daughters.
What’s strange is that mainstream culture had an entirely different reaction to the fall of the housing market. How many adults over 30 bought mortgages they couldn’t afford before the bubble burst and are now swimming in underwater mortgages? We call it the housing crisis because that’s what it was – a crisis. These are people who had jobs, and at least some credit, and yet made irresponsible and ultimately tragic decisions.
But on a whole the backlash isn’t toward those who lost their homes, but those who offered mortgages to misinformed folks who couldn’t afford them.
Everyone blames the lenders.
Only a few years later, Netflix is full of documentaries on the topic that really delve into the effect the housing crisis had on individual buyers. Here, the people are victims. But when teenagers with limited work experience and no credit are signing along the dotted line? Well, those kids are everything that’s wrong with the country.
I understand some of the response. I do. People are making sacrifices. There are 18-year-old’s who get into Duke and attend North Carolina State instead. But to task teenagers in one broad stroke as being equipped to make that decision is unfair.
It’s easy when you lump an entire age-group together as one single entity. But in covering the topic, I’ve spoken with orphans and teens in foster care. No one is there to say, “Filing as an independent has its perks, but how are you paying back what the Pell Grant doesn’t cover?”
Even teenagers coming from a two-parent suburban household need better academic counseling than is presently provided. How many of us had the faintest clue what we were doing at 18? Be honest.
At the very least, these graduating seniors should be given a little sympathy. Maybe not money, but sympathy. Think of the housing market. Buying a bigger house is a check mark on the American Dream. Children are then raised to buy into that dream—to not be limited by the circumstances of their parents. It’s hard to decide when to strive and when to settle. It’s that much harder without the requisite experience.
That is not to say, inexperienced or not, young Americans don’t share in the responsibility of their actions. We do. But do we deserve to be the target of so much animosity?
The issue here is a lack of education – on all sides. And the greatest way to encourage education in a democracy is awareness, which tends to be a byproduct of free speech. The younger generation is trying to stay afloat. Some of it is our fault, but personal accountability is only half of the puzzle. Just as with the housing market, private lenders need to be held responsible for entering into risky agreements in the first place. An 18-year-old might not know better, but like Fannie and Freddie, I suspect Sallie very well does.
Contact Susan Kemp.
Double Take is a weekly column re-evaluating issues that affect the college-aged student.