Column: By saddling students with debt, we’re depriving them of self-reliance

Editor’s Note: In 2015, about 40 million people had student debt, up from 29 million in 2008. While the majority of borrowers owe about $25,000, people who owe less than $10,000 are the most likely to default. That’s because many never finished school and won’t reap a pay increase from a college degree.

Steve Gardiner is in his 39th year teaching high school English in Billings, Montana. Gardiner has seen his former students struggling to make payments on their student loans for years after they graduate. He worries about the lasting effects that debt will have on the rest of their lives.

As students leave home to attend college, they are getting a very mixed message. Teachers, counselors and parents tell them to go to college, to stay in school, to work toward a brighter future. However, when students take a look at the cost and resulting debt, they see numbers that have never been more disproportionate to their future paychecks and the cost of living.


“Working your way through college these days is a myth,” a former student of mine — I’ll call him Mike, age 30 — told me. “I worked, on average, two jobs at a time during the school year and bounced from being a landscaper, to a photo room manager, to a barista — anything that would let me work to make money and maybe do some homework during my shift was a bonus. During summer I usually tutored at a local adult learning center and did manual labor in my off time. These ventures paid for my room and board at college, but didn’t even dent tuition costs.”

Many former students have come back to my classroom to tell me they changed their career plans after they got to college and learned how expensive law school, medical school, or other graduate programs would be. Having seen them leave high school excited about their plans, I always found it difficult to talk to them about changed plans. They are discouraged, disillusioned, and I understand their concerns. How can we look at most of today’s students and expect them to meet the financial demands of college?

Mike does see the positive side of the debt he has accepted. “Still, my college education is also the reason I have the job I want, the job that I think will make a difference in our community. I’d pay it again, unhappily, but it’s the reality of what it takes for a person of my financial background to do what I want to do. Unfortunately, it means I had to put on hold many other goals.”

WATCH: Our student debt anxiety explained in one video

Americans hold $1.3 trillion in student debt, a number that is only increasing, and low-income students are hit the hardest, according to a series by PBS NewsHour  and other public media partners, “How the Deck Is Stacked.” The Huffington Post reported in 2012 that since 1978, the cost of college tuition had soared 1,120 percent. On their timeline of college tuition stretching back to the first European universities, Best Colleges Online notes that prior to the 1970s, college costs rose 2-3 percent per year. By 1975, it began to rise 5 percent above inflation; in 2003, average costs were increasing 14 percent a year. And by 2005, the default rate on student loans began to rise. Overall, since 1982, college tuition increased by 439 percent, while income increased by 147 percent, according to Best Colleges Online.

These numbers are frightening to prospective students. One high school senior last year talked to me about her college choices. She had picked a school in a larger city as the perfect option. She applied. She got accepted. She visited the school. She then realized that the debt she would accumulate would encumber her for 20 years. She changed plans and is attending a smaller school.

I attended college from 1972-1977. I found summer jobs with carpenters, the rural electric association, and the railroad, and every summer, I worked for three months, saved my money and was able to pay for nine months of school from those funds. For students today, that is no longer the case.

Debts force students to delay marriage, postpone children and reevaluate career choices. “My accrued student debt is the reason I don’t own a house yet. Over the past eight years I’ve paid back about $18,000 on my student loans — my only source of debt — and that’s just under half of what I’ll end up owing,” my former student Mike said. “That’s a down payment on a house. Between my debt and my wife’s, we are nowhere near financially ready to even consider kids. And even now, with a full-time career, I struggle to pay for my graduate school out of pocket, and that’s while only taking one class a semester. The cost of education is heavy.”

The numbers are also terrifying to those students’ parents. How can parents, struggling to pay off mortgages, save for retirement, support other children or their own aging parents, be expected to take out loans to help them out?

Having helped three of our own daughters through school, my wife and I accumulated parent loans that took over a dozen years to pay off. I am not complaining about the payments, because we encouraged our daughters from the days they were born to continue school and earn a college degree. All three did. The debt and resulting challenge for future plans like marriage and home ownership are one worry, but I actually have an even greater concern.

When I was working my way through college, my parents could not help me. Yes, I did go home during the summer, so I did not pay for rent or meals during those three months (and that was a significant help) but they were never able to give me any money for actual school expenses. I had four younger brothers and sisters at home. I understood that and accepted that. In fact, I never worried about it. I was glad I could take care of myself, a feeling and lesson that few, if any, college students can accomplish today.

The burden of college debt will hang on our current students for years, but depriving them of the sense of pride and dignity they could develop by advancing their own lives could last a lifetime. That loss of autonomy, the satisfaction of self-reliance, may be the real cost of high student loans.