Not Your Parents’ Student Debt

By Annie Wood
This story originally appeared in Generation Progress’s summer magazine, an annual publication that features engaging pieces on issues affecting young people.

The cost of college has climbed at an alarming rate over the last few decades, outpacing the rising cost of food and housing when factoring in inflation. The Class of 2015 is the most indebted class to ever graduate college, exemplifying the impossibility of paying tuition and fees upfront.

As average student debt hovers around $35,051, it is hard to imagine any scenario where a summer or even school-year job would cover the cost. Despite the clear rising cost of tuition, lawmakers still talk about how they worked as a janitor or waitress and were able to cover the cost of tuition and books (and walked uphill both ways to and from campus).


It is true that many of our parents were able to make it through college with little to no debt compared to the Class of 2015, but students today face an entirely different situation. Millennials who feel everyone is harping on them for being lazy can take solace in knowing they’re not: the cost of college has risen over 1,100 percent in the last 30 years and has reached a point where even hard work won’t cut it.

When lawmakers today report that they worked their way through college, it is hard to state how out of touch they are with the reality of college costs today. Part of this, according to higher education expert Mark Huelsman at the think tank Demos, is that the bootstrap narrative of paying for college on one’s own is political, geared toward relating to the “everyday American.” However, according to work by Demos, this may have less to do with the responsibility, hard work, and foresight of 19-year-olds, and more to do with the escalating cost of college.

While attending college for many in generations past required having a summer or school-year job, students and graduates today with hefty student loan debt are no less hardworking. If politicians are actually trying to appeal to the “everyday American,” perhaps lawmakers should consider the fact that if members of Congress went back to college today, they would be in for a rude awakening.

A Demos report found that when members of Congress went to college, they paid an average of $11,443 in fees per year (adjusted to 2013 dollars). If these representatives were to go back to their alma maters tomorrow, they would pay $32,279, three times as much. In fact, if members of the House and Senate committees dealing with higher education went back to their colleges today, they would have to pay a collective $1 million more.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a longtime champion for making college affordable for all Americans, has acknowledged that working to pay off college was different in her day, when attending a commuter school cost only $50 a semester.

“How can college cost $50 a semester? Because the American taxpayers were helping support those public institutions to say to any kid: ‘Hey, look. If you work hard you play by the rules, you really get out there, you’re gonna have an opportunity, you’re gonna have a fighting chance,’” Senator Warren told NPR’s Boston station, WBUR. Warren has also noted that raising wages is an important step toward ensuring economic opportunity.

Playing by the rules today, unfortunately, means tough decisions. According to a growing body of research, the new norm is taking out student loans. Even students who receive need-based aid through Pell grants are taking on debt—84 percent of Pell recipients have student loans, according to research from Demos.


Summer jobs aside, students like Molly Messner, a rising senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are working hard and still making tough financial choices and compromises that shape their college experiences. Messner has been able to save money on housing as a Residential Adviser, but has still had to work throughout her undergraduate career. “I have to make extra efforts—applying, interviewing, taking the job—and sacrifices, like not having the ‘traditional college experience’ by being committed to live, eat, sleep, and work in the same environment for three years, plus rules and conditions,” she explains.

But Messner isn’t complaining about having to work throughout school. “Getting paid for work is really important to me and my parents, who advise against unpaid internships and even study or work abroad experiences that would end up being more expensive than a traditional semester,” she said. Still, her financial savvy and various jobs don’t cover the cost of tuition, and she worries stress over finances may be setting her back: “It limits opportunities and networking for my professional career.”

The cost of college is leading students to compromise, even early on, when it comes to school choice, but it is a myth that all students could avoid student debt just by choosing a cheaper college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, average tuition, fees, and room and board at all institutions (public and private, two-year and four-year) increased from an average of $8,438 in 1982 to $19,339 in 2012.

Today, of the 43.3 million Americans who have student loan debt, 15 million are below the age of 30. There is clear evidence that students aren’t indebted for lack of hard work. If students and their parents could pull a “Freaky Friday” and parents had to attend college tomorrow, they’d see that even working full time does not cover the cost of college.

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