Jake, a high school junior in Utah, is just starting the college application process. He’s looking for a school with good biology and chemistry departments, as well as an Army ROTC program in case he decides to enlist. Penn State, his top choice, has it all. But Jake’s top priority isn’t student athletics, a high college rank or a vibrant party scene — it’s to graduate debt-free.
“I’m a lower-middle-class citizen,” he says. “I have to pay for my own tuition, and if I can’t manage that I’m afraid I’ll get stuck in the cycle of debt that seems to plague my economic class.”
For the past few years, college debt — now the highest it’s ever been — has risen from a taboo dinner topic to one of our most pressing political issues. Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are leading the conversations with legislative proposals for free public college tuition and student-loan debt forgiveness.
These plans have sparked endless chatter among the pundit class. But what of the high schoolers they’d affect first-hand? Some graduates, mired in debt, have decided to just wait it out and pray our next president will save them. On the other side, I spoke with high schoolers who’ve accepted their fate, however bleak it looks. For these teens, future finances weigh heavily on their impending college decision.
Andrew, a 17-year-old in North Carolina, is among the two thirds of Generation Z for whom college debt is a “top concern,” according to the book Gen Z @ Work. He says these progressive proposals “sound great,” but he believes he’d be “well out of college before anything happens.” Debt anxiety influenced Andrew’s decision to spend two years at Haywood Community College in Clyde, North Carolina. (According to a new study by TD Ameritrade, 89 percent of Gen Z say they’ve considered an education route that’s not the traditional four-year institution.)
“Community college for prep will be cheapest, and then I’m going to the cheapest university afterward,” he says. Doesn’t he resent missing out on the typical college experience? “Nah, I’m just risking not living in a dorm, which seems scary and possibly sucky if you hate your roomie,” he says. “I won’t be able to go to college parties like others, but I don’t get invited to any now anyway.”
Besides, Andrew’s seen what happened to previous generations, and he adamantly wants to avoid the same financial pitfalls: “All I ever hear is how unaffordable living on the budget of a minimum wage job is between debt, apartment fees and food.”
Before college applicants like Andrew can begin to worry about what a candidate might offer them down the road, they’re busy learning how to apply and pay for school right now. Faced with high application fees and a complex Common App system, many students — especially first-generation college students — are feeling overwhelmed. According to a 2019 study by the U.S. Department of Education, an estimated 33 percent of postsecondary education students have parents who did not attend college.
“Everyone in my family is new to the college process,” says Steven, a 17-year-old from California. He’s applying to 10 colleges for the 2020-2021 school year, including the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University. He calls the process slow and confusing, and he feels isolated: “I am alone when it comes to researching what I need and getting all important information.”
Zach, a first-generation college student from Fulton, Mississippi, “didn’t have a clue” what he was doing while applying for colleges. “My school counselors didn’t really help; college advisers I emailed didn’t even reply,” he says. “The main thing I didn’t know was where to go to take loans out.” Zach eventually posted on the subreddit r/applyingtocollege to ask for advice and guidance, and after consulting with friends and family, he asked his parents to take out a federal Direct PLUS loan. (Warren’s recently proposed student debt bill would make Direct PLUS loan holders eligible for debt cancellation, reported CNBC.)
Even for more fortunate students who plan to pay off their tuition costs in real time, there’s still worry about the trauma of college debt looming large over the entire country.
Tim is a sophomore at Purdue University. He and his parents picked the Indiana school largely because the price of tuition is frozen and won’t increase during his four years. Come graduation, they’re expected to owe somewhere between $35,000 to $50,000, which they plan to pay in full.
Nevertheless, he still experiences a sort of debt trauma when he sees how “extremely worried” his friends are about tuition. “Student debt is always lingering in the back of everyone’s mind,” Tim says. The only way he can make sense of it is to turn the fear of debt into college motivation. His mantra: “Do my best at every class, making sure I don’t have to retake any classes and spend more time and money in college.”