The Sallie Mae Generation

20 06 2012

Photo: blog.peacemagazine.com

“Hell naw, got a degree but what that cost you, you make a good salary just to pay SallieMae, that’s real as ever, ducking bill collectors like Jehova’s witness…” J Cole/ Blow Up

I know the recent trend has been to call my generation (the adults who graduated from college between 2005 and present) the Boomerang generation. The idea behind that classification being that many of us have found ourselves moving back home right after graduating, even if it’s for a short amount of time, and not necessarily moving into our own places right away.¹

But I think there’s an even more accurate description for us – the Sallie Mae Generation. That classification gets to the heart of the matter a little better, and may even explain more fully why so many 22 year olds feel as if they have to move back home to get their footing before completely venturing out.

If you listen, you can hear how those loans come up in the conversations we have all the time, and the debt that many of us have taken on to attend institutions of higher learning is always present in the decisions we make in our lives. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard friends refer to their school loan debt as the reason they can’t get a better apartment or buy a home, can’t move to the city they want to live in, can’t travel as much as they would like, or any other host of opportunities squandered because they’re paying between $400 and $1000 a month on loan payments.

Think about it for a second. Howard University is a public/private school in DC that costs anywhere between $27,000 and $40,000 a year to attend, if you want to include things like books, room and board and living expenses. But Howard is actually considered a smaller university with less costs. To compare, Georgetown University (a completely private school) is in the same city and can cost anywhere between $50,000 and $65,000 a year.

Even if you get a partial scholarship to either of those schools, you’re leaving that school with massive loan debt that begins to weigh on all your decisions going forward. Can you take that job you really want in the non-profit field if you know that you owe $60,000 or more? Or how about move to San Francisco (one of the most expensive cities in the country) without thinking that you may have to live with ten roommates or in an apartment the size of a moving box?

And that’s before you even get to post-graduate degrees. Once you start calculating, it can quickly become clear as to why the school loans are affecting us so much. Our generation is the same one that was constantly told that we needed higher education to get where we wanted to be. We’re the ones killing ourselves to get not just the undergraduate degree, but also the master’s, the PhD, the law degrees, and the medical degrees. Heck, I know some people with 3 out of 4 of those. I don’t even want to think about how much they owe back.

Generations before us were getting post graduate degrees as well, but for our generation – these degrees are almost becoming synonymous with the undergraduate degree because so many people have them. It almost becomes a reinforced cycle – the more people that get them, the more people feel they need to get them to continue to compete in the job market. And while we’re stacking up on degrees, we’re stacking up on debt as well.

And Sallie Mae tends to be the company behind it all.

I know President Obama has put some steps into place in an attempt to help solve some of this loan problem, but in reality, I think most people are going to go along doing the same thing J Cole said in his song – going to work just to pay Sallie Mae.

It is a part of our generation now, just as World War II was a part of our grandparents’ generation and the Civil Rights movement was a part of our parents’ generation. It is beginning to define us, in good ways and bad. It definitely drives our decisions and might be one of the main causes for us getting married later.  We’re so focused on our careers, so focused on making more money so that we can pay off those loans. It is a part of what drives our generation now. Maybe it’s why so many of us are so ambitious in our dreams. Maybe it’s why some people have given up on those ambitious dreams and settled into just “making a good living.” And maybe we’ll look back on this time and see that it sparked some grand movement amongst us.

I don’t know all of these things for sure. But whatever will be said about it in the future, one thing seems clear – it will be talked about and it will be seen as a defining piece of our generation’s culture.

1 I definitely moved home for a summer after undergrad and let me tell ya – I love my family and I love my city, but I couldn’t wait to get back up to DC to start grad school by the end of that “boomerang” situation. So I’m pretty sure no one looks forward to going back home, feeling like you couldn’t quite cut it on your own (whether that’s actually the truth or not).

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