2001 was a big year for me. I turned 18, I graduated from high school, I started school at Wheaton College, and – I signed on for my first student loans. I barely remember making the decision to sign on for them, they were a blip on my consciousness.
I never expected that, 15 years later, for the entirety of my adult life thus far, knowing that number, “Balance: $xx,xxx” would feel as natural as knowing the time of day. And every month, the fires of that loan would burn a bit of my paycheck. If I was between jobs, the flames would grow, interest would compound, the fires would spread until I had enough money to pay it back down again.
My last payments have arrived in America from Korea, and today I sat down, logged into my account, and for the first time, I selected “Pay Off Amount”. I thought it would be around $8500. Sweet, only $8470, as if that was some sort of a deal. It grows every day. I saw the button at the bottom, “submit payment”, and I thought about the 15 years I’ve worked and saved for this moment, and with all the gravitas required for such an occasion, I clicked. And it was done.
For the Millennials, my generation, sending off that last student loan payment is a coming-of-age ritual on par with getting your driver’s license, getting married, or buying your first home. Indeed, many people compare student loan debt and a home mortgage. I’m out of my mind excited about paying off this student loan debt, but there are some who might rain on my parade a little, saying “you know, once you get a home mortgage, you’re back in debt”. Let me tell you right now, I think that equivalence doesn’t hold up at all.
A home has value that can be transferred to another person – and since home values generally rise faster than inflation, as long as you’ve been paying on it for a few years, you can usually sell it for more than you bought it. An academic degree has no such transferrable value.
Getting a student loan and paying for a degree is closer to using your credit card to pay for a vacation. It’s an experience that you probably enjoyed and that probably enriched your life, but it has no resale value, and you’ll be paying it off for a while. Not many people would recommend buying a vacation with money you don’t have yet. And yet – here we are, my generation, with our student loans.
I don’t think there’s anything I can say in regards to political or economic reform, income inequality, etc, that hasn’t been said louder or more eloquently in other forums.
But let me say this – I’ve known since I was young that I wanted a career in the liberal arts. When I got to high school, I started to realize that this direction wouldn’t make me rich. That was fine, I was ready to sacrifice a little salary for job satisfaction. But we, my liberal arts classmates and I, were never prepared for what we would face in economy of the 2000s.
I was lucky – I taught English in Korea, I got in early enough and have loved my career teaching in universities and doing teacher training. And today I paid off my student loans. But let’s call it what it is – I was able to pay off my loans as quick as I did because I am an economic migrant. Many of my liberal arts classmates don’t have that opportunity, and at the same time, an American middle class lifestyle is becoming harder and harder to attain and maintain.
Those who’ve graduated since the financial crisis of 2008-2009 at least have an idea of what to expect. They know about stagnant wages and tough working conditions for teachers in America. They’re stuck with the same difficult decisions, but at least they have more information. Those of us born in the early to mid 80s, we were still riding the high of the Clinton 90s, signing our student loan agreements with a smile.
Some of us have paid those loans off. Others are still paying.
As for me, as I clicked that “submit payment”, my thoughts turned to possibilities – investing in stocks, buying a house, building a home, starting a family. Paying off loans feels like putting out fires. Paying off loans is minimizing damage, stopping the spread of destruction. And when the fires are finally out, building can start again.