Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Golden Cage

Here is an interesting email forward, and then below it is my unsolicited opinion!

My Degree Isn't Worth the Debt!

Facing college costs that are rising far faster than incomes, many Americans are relying on massive amounts of debt.
We talked to people overloaded with student loans.

Courtesy: Erik Solecki
Erik Solecki
Student debt: $185,000
Bachelor's in industrial engineering from Kettering University
Was my college degree worth it? Hell no.
I graduated from one of the top engineering schools in the nation, thinking my starting salary would be between $70,000 and $80,000 a year.
Such a specialized, technical degree is supposed to lead to a great career, so I was willing to take out the debt.
Instead, I was hit with nine months of unemployment after graduating. And now that I finally have a job, I'm making about $15,000 a year less than I had hoped.
Even if I were able to afford the $1,800 payments each month, it will probably take me 30 years to pay off my student loans.
I engineer high-end autos. Ironically, I'll probably never be able to afford one.

Courtesy: Saniquah Robinson
Saniquah Robinson
Student debt: $82,000
Degrees: Master's in Health Science from Chatham University; Bachelor's in psychology from Temple University
After holding my Master's for three years, I'm still fighting to find a Master's level position.
I have been seeking employment in the medical field and after about a hundred interviews, I'm left doing contract work for $19 an hour.
I once believed that part of the American Dream was to earn a college education and this would ensure a great career and financial freedom. Unfortunately I am losing hope.
I'm a mother of three, and my husband and I have been turned down from purchasing a home due to our income-to-debt ratio.
I don't want people to think they shouldn't go to college -- it definitely gives you a great foundation to start your career. But it's very important that when you do, you know exactly what you want to study and you're knowledgeable about debt.

Courtesy: Shane Dixon
Shane Dixon
Student debt: $72,800
Degrees: Master's in public health from University of South Carolina; Bachelor's in biology from Clemson University
In my early years after high school, I wavered between trade school and college, but eventually opted for college and earned a Bachelor's in biology.
I quickly found work, but at an abysmal wage of $7.25 per hour, which did not even allow me to live on my own.
After an exasperating year at that wage, I decided to go back to school and I graduated in 2004 with a Master's in Public Health, thinking I was on the road to recovery.
During that time, I had been married, had a child, gotten divorced, and ended up raising my son on my own. I took a low paying government job in Southern Florida, and because I couldn't even make the minimum payments on my debt, I took forbearance after forbearance.
I have had a good life, but now at age 37, the weariness of carrying this financial burden frustrates me to no end.
My son is nine years old now and will want to attend college when he graduates high school. But what will I tell him? First I have to decide if the college degree is worth the debt. I hope by the time he is making his decision, I will have figured it out.

Courtesy: Michelle Shipley
Michelle Shipley
Student debt: $140,000
Degree: Bachelor's in political science and international development from Tulane University
Like many, I had no idea what money meant when I was 17. My family is not wealthy. I simply didn't have the information or knowledge to know what it would be like now.
I had to pay for college on my own and took out loans for everything - rent, food, books, tuition, etc.
Then, during my sophomore year, I lost everything to Hurricane Katrina. I finished my degree, but continued to take loans to make it possible.
I'm now working at a non-profit and I love it -- but I don't make much. I've been able to put off the payments through forbearance, but I know the $1,400 a month bills are coming soon. Not to mention, I've also racked up about $7,000 in credit card debt.
My debt is a life-swallowing, all-consuming, hole in my life. No college degree is worth that.

Over there it's Student Debt; for many Indians it is mostly "Parents' Investment". For a very few, it's a scholarship. In either case, it is ultimately some few very well-off people to whom all the hard-earned or hard-raised money goes, with only a fraction coming back into the ecosystem in any beneficial way.

If only 100 or 1000 people did this, it would be still ok, but what about the big picture? We must ask ourselves, "could there be an alternative?" Is the world just a narrow tunnel we must rush into, or an open field where there are many pathways to success and where you can also be happy by not running around too much? Especially in the fast-developing global scenario of nearly all education becoming completely free and open to all and existing materials getting outdated by the time their students graduate, should we keep running after the old bandwagon?

I loved the personal stories shared here in this email forward and their power to drive in the point. (Apologies if the photos of the people didn't come through...) They're not isolated incidents : several people I've grown up with, studied with, gotten acquainted with - extremely nice and talented people, are also living under mountains of debt - either to banks or in a few 'lucky' cases, to their families. Does that explain the abnormally high incidence of talented and well-educated people ultimately not marrying the men or women they had fallen in love with, or not taking up their dream projects but instead fake-smiling their way through compromise and calling it all a part of "growing up" ?!

I can tell you this : They are not happy with the way their life has panned out, sorry. Many still have expectations that it's all turning around and "just a little bit more slogging!" but I foresee frustration lurking around the corners. The vast majority aren't doing the revolutionary, ground-breaking, world-changing or noble work that they'd set out to - somewhere in the race for prosperity and status, those innate aspirations took a backseat. In many cases the heart itself has changed and they're no longer the people I knew that genuinely wanted to help others.

They're working hard, all right - too hard in fact, but what and who are they ultimately working for? Couldn't their immense talents have been better utilized? And the biggest tragedy is that they can't just change tracks now even if they desperately want to : the debt has trapped them in golden cages - trapped them until the time comes when they will no longer be able to return to their dream projects. They are no longer free people.

I'm also attaching a couple of great info-graphics I've found elsewhere that explains the fine lines brilliantly. And don't go for the comfortable ignorances : the picture of student loans in India too isn't getting any better. I highly recommend all youngsters who are gearing up for further studies, and their parents who are planning on bankrolling them with the expectation of magically giving them a better life, to please check this out, switch off the TV for an evening and spend some time thinking over it together.

Nikhil Sheth
Pune, India
Teach For India Fellow, 2011-13

click on the images to view in full size:

 oh, and these are NOT my own.. attributed to I think...


Nikhil Sheth said...

More articles that expose the realities of the Golden Cage

USA's student debt has crossed the $1 trillion mark as of April 2012, surpassing all other forms of debt for the first time.

For this family, the worst possible horror of student debt came true: After losing their son to an accident, the debt company is forcing the PARENTS to pay for his debt!!

Nikhil Sheth said...

Feedback received over email for this:
Dear Nikhil

i do agree with the facts which you have collected and stand as a eye opener to the narrow minded mentality of this economy and youth. With time our hope dwindled to change the world and got our necks wrung and creativity shackled by the pressure.

Glad to see that few ppl like you have not succumb to the pressure and try to broaden our limited vision. Will surely pass on the message. Good work Bro!
agree .. i tell the same when people ask me if my MBA was worth.. and if they can follow what i did...
hmmm... 30% americans that i speak with at my job ask for help with their student loans... unfortunately these loans are not negotiable.

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