Originally published in Teen Vogue.
Over the Last Decade, Wages Have Stayed the Same While the Cost of College Has Skyrocketed
By Zach Schermele
They’re drowning in student loan debt, victims of stagnant wages, sideswiped by political circumstance. As you may have heard, or know from personal experience, young people are being left behind by the United States’ economy, especially over the past 10 years, according to a report released by Young Invincibles, a young-adult research and advocacy group.
The report, released Tuesday, June 4, compiles data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources to juxtapose the economic outlook of young people from 2009 to now. The results paint a grim picture of a generation petrified by the notion that college is nonnegotiable — and leaders who’ve turned a blind eye to a glaring crisis.
“We’re able to make an apples-to-apples comparison between the young people entering the workforce as the recession hit and those entering the workforce today,” Soncia Coleman, senior director of programs for Young Invincibles, tells Teen Vogue.
According to the report, the wages of people age 25 to 34 have remained consistent over the past decade, at $807 per week. In that time, the cost of college has risen 30%. A collectively owed $660 billion in student loans in 2009 today looms at over $1.5 trillion, the majority owed by millennials age 19 to 29. Almost all new jobs created since the Great Recession have gone to post-secondary graduates, meaning those who’ve continued their schooling beyond a bachelor’s degree: a sardonic backdrop for yet another generation saddled with an unprecedented amount of college-induced debt.
When not blundering on solutions, American leadership continues to ignore the crisis. In 2017, education secretary and billionaire Betsy DeVos rolled back Obama-era student loan protections meant to help students better manage their debt. The New York Times reported that the Education Department, under DeVos’s watch, refused to approve even one application for federal student loan relief in the second half of 2018, according to department data.
In addition, in early May, a scoop from the Wall Street Journal revealed the Trump administration is mulling over the prospect of selling its student loan portfolio to private investors. Administration officials argue, according to Forbes, that the move would help assess how to ease the burden on taxpayers; opponents stress that adding private investors to the equation would not be in the best interest of students.
“While President Trump and his administration laud the economy and a low unemployment rate, our analysis shows that there is a whole generation of young people who aren’t reaping the benefits of ‘the greatest economy in history,’” Coleman says. “The economy is not working for young people.”
At a rally in Pennsylvania, in late May, President Donald Trump touted the strength of the country’s economy, calling it “the best economy probably that we’ve ever had.” The Washington Post gave him three Pinocchios for that claim, referencing stronger economies under several other presidents, including Bill Clinton. But it’s a refrain Trump has repeated numerous times, by tweet and along the campaign trail, one that reverberates around the country as figures like “3.1% growth” leap from the lips of economists and politicians alike.
But for debt-mired former students like Ashley Payne, the economy doesn’t feel like the “greatest in history.”
Ashley, an Atlanta-based attorney who was the first in her family to graduate from college, owes at least $330,000 in student loan debt. She attended the historically black Fisk University before graduating from Emory University School of Law in 2013. Ashley’s situation mirrors the trends highlighted in the Young Invincibles report, giving imprimatur to data about an education system she says sets up underprivileged groups to fail.
“When you have an education system where people are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for an education […] and they’re only going to make a fraction of that as their salary, that’s not a good indicator of our economy,” Ashley tells Teen Vogue. Black women today are victims of the most student loan debt, according to a 2018 report by the American Association of University Women, as reported by Newsweek. Some experts say this is largely due to a big increase in four-year college-completion rates among black women and disproportionate pay once they graduate. Once again, the deck is stacked higher against minorities, limiting their options and forcing them to prioritize basic necessities.
“You have people in my generation who can’t buy houses, who need new cars, who don’t want to have children,” Ashley says, “because they can’t afford to.”
When her Department of Education loans maxed out during her senior year at Fisk, Ashley says she was rerouted by the government to private lenders. Juggling two majors, and dealing with the fact that she’d taken on more debt — this time, to private lenders, who offer fewer protections for borrowers — she still managed to graduate number two in both of her majors. She left Fisk with a 3.82-grade-point average — and $50,000 in debt. It was all an effort, she says, to achieve a dream that society had convinced her was attainable.
“We did exactly what they said we should so that we could access the American dream [by attending college],” she adds. “And for so many, it just doesn’t become a reality […] it becomes more of a burden.”
But there is hope. As young people gain more political capital, the days of avoiding the albatross weighing them down are over. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), one of many 2020 contenders counting on the millennial vote, released a plan in April to cancel $50,000 in student loan debt for anyone with a household income under $100,000. She says her proposal would be paid for by a 2% tax on households with a net worth of at least $50 million. Warren also presented a strategy for making public colleges tuition-free.
Currently, Congress is debating reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), legislation that could drastically alter college affordability. According to Coleman, changes made to HEA could represent the first concrete steps at lightening the financial load on young people’s shoulders, for example, by reforming and simplifying an overcomplicated student loan process.
“Leaders in Washington have a real opportunity to address the causes of this crisis,” she says.