What’s Going On: The debt that’s killing America

What if I told you there was an aspect of society that’s largely embraced, while at the same time, wreaking havoc and chaos.

This recent societal development has put a stranglehold on our economy while at the same time threatening our very basic family institutions, including marriage and children.

Despite its acceptance and embracement by our culture, it is a contributing factor to a decline in retail spending and an endangerment to the existence of the middle child.

And right now … millions of teenagers, with help of their parents, are trying to get one: a student loan.

Student loan statistics in the United States are staggering.

Here are just a few numbers:

• $1.48 trillion. That’s how much cumulative student loan debt exists in this country. Ponder that number one point five … trillion. With a T.

• $39,420. The average debt for a 2017 four-year college graduate.

• 44.2 million. Number of Americans with a student loan, or about one in seven.

• $351. Average monthly payment for borrowers between 20 and 30 years old.

• 71. Percent of four-year university graduates with student loan debt.

Here’s the most compelling number that speaks to the size of this debt: $820 billion. That’s the amount of credit card debt in this nation, or more than 40 percent less than student loan debt.

And the impact student loan debt is having on society is far-reaching. With an average $351 student loan payment per month, on top of the inevitable credit card and possibly car payment, the younger population is buying fewer homes. Since 2001, there has been a 10 percent decline in home ownership in that aforementioned 20-30-year-old demographic while the percentage of first time buyers in was nearly cut in half (29-16 percent).

But student loan debt is delaying more than starting a home, it’s also delaying starting a family. Not only has the average age of a first-time married couple increased, so too has the average age of new parents. And with couples waiting longer to have children, they are having fewer children, which leads to the aforementioned demise of the “middle child.” As recently as the 1980s, two-thirds of women who had children had three or more, with a third having two or less.

Today, those numbers are reversed with a third of mothers have three children and two-thirds only having two.

Even more concerning, though, is how student loans are eroding our very moral fabric in terms of the traditional family structure.

According to a recent study, student debt is now being cited as a leading cause of divorce. Financial struggles have always been a major cause of divorce, and now, student loans are compounding the problem as 13 percent of divorces last year were attributed to student loan debt.

And in the irony of ironies, I’ve witnessed firsthand how student loan debt can actually prevent a recent graduate from getting a job. Several years ago, I interviewed a prospective sports reporter who was adequately qualified for the job despite a lack of experience. However, when we started negotiating salary, he indicated he would need an additional 25 percent in compensation, which was already higher than the industry standard for an entry level reporter, so he could he afford his student loan payments.

As a result … he kept bartending at the local Hooters and living in his parents’ basement.

That may be the most troubling aspect of these staggering student loans. It makes sense to incur that kind of debt and saddle yourself with those future payments if, when you finish your education, you are guaranteed a job with a salary that justifies the debt; doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. But if you walk out of college with $60,000 in debt so you can land a job that pays half of that every year … you may need to reconsider your choices.

Even more frustrating are the scores of students who graduate from college with X number of dollars in debt and end up going into an entirely different professional field than the one they studied, which begs the question: Why go to college at all?

When my children reach the collegiate age, I’ll encourage them to attend college if only for the experience, exposure and opportunity to develop critical thinking skills; but only if it makes sense financially.

Students have the mistaken belief they have to finish school in four or five years. You don’t. If you can’t get the scholarships or grants to cover 90 percent of your costs, don’t take a full-time course load and get a part-time (or full-time) job as well.

Get a college education to help equip you in life; but only if it doesn’t bury you in debt.


Gregory Orear is the publisher of The Journal. His award-winning weekly column, “What’s Going On,” has been published in four newspapers in three states for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at gorear@nujournal.com.