College Debt Load Gives ‘Generation Y’ Grim Outlook

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The New York Sun

Millions of young adults across the country let out a collective sigh of relief when the Fed affirmed that it would hold the target rate at 5.25% for at least another month.

For these recent college graduates, the steady up-tick in interest rates during the previous 17 months has provided an extra sobering dose of the postcollegiate ‘real world.’

Every quarter-point rise means the prospect of paying off their student loans has become evermore daunting. So even a two- or three-month leveling off of the overnight rate comes as a welcomed break.

Americans in their 20s — those broadly defined as ‘Generation Y’ — are supposed to be more concerned about weighty issues like world affairs, local politics, and the environment than their ‘Gen X’ predecessors. But they’ve also distinguished themselves another way: They’re the most leveraged generation in American history, and they have, for the most part, the cost of their college education to thank for that distinction.

“Student loan debt makes a big difference,” said Danielle Bagdzinski, a 2005 graduate of the University of Minnesota. “It hinders the things you can do, especially if you’re thinking about graduate school and buying a house someday.”

Ms. Bagdzinski is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Seton Hall University’s school of communications. She is juggling night classes with a full-time job because she doesn’t want to incur the type of debt she sees as stifling her friends’ lives.

“Today’s young adults who borrowed money for college will be between 52 and 55 on average when they finish paying off their education,” said the president of the New Hampshire chapter of the nonprofit Jump Start Coalition, Dan Hebert. “They’ll be asking themselves if it was all worth it. The whole concept of college education is at risk.”

Up until seven years ago, Mr. Hebert was a commercial banker who specialized in lending and credit cards. He left his job after he became convinced that he could help young Americans curb their appetite for credit.

What he said he discovered was that young Americans would borrow any amount to pay for college if it meant going immediately after high school. But when the cost of a college education began outpacing the rise in the cost of living, paying for that college experience became a proposition for life. The American penchant for credit card use doesn’t help the matter, he said.

The last time the personal savings rate was negative — that is, people spent more than they saved — was 1933. “In the middle of the Great Depression, the operative word was survival,” said Mr. Hebert. “Today, it’s all about consumption. It’s something we’ve ingrained into our kids’ heads.”

Catherine Fitzpatrick, a 2006 graduate of Hunter College, has $6,000 in outstanding student loans. She says her current debt load has more to do with her personal spending habits than her decision to leverage her college education. “I wish I could blame them on my loans,” she said. “Unfortunately, the truth is, I just want more things than my paycheck can cover. I’d be in debt even if I didn’t have my student loans to contend with.”

State chapters of the Jump Start Coalition advocate including personal finance classes in public high schools. The idea, said Mr. Hebert, is that if teenagers begin thinking about how to keep budgets in high school, they won’t be as likely to make reckless charges when they get their first credit cards.

“Topics like insurance and budgeting can be very scary things to deal with right out of college,” said Mr. Hebert. “But the alternative is even scarier.”

The issue has inspired popular books like Tamara Draut’s “Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead.” Financial institutions, many of which issue credit cards and structure college loans in the first place, are also pointing out the dangers of taking on large amounts of college debt.

“How college debt impacts peoples’ lives has never been quantified before,” said the Senior Product Manager for College Savings at AllianceBernstein, Michael Conrath. “Over 25% of the young adults polled said they have delayed getting medical and dental procedures. Many have put off getting married and having children. Because of college debt, many rites of passage are being delayed.”

AllianceBernstein’s survey polled 1,500 young adults one to 15 years out of college with an average debt load of $29,000. The results reflect the desperation of debt-laden young adults in a clearly ‘Gen Y’ idiom: Some 30% of those surveyed said, for example, said they thought the pop singer Madonna will be a grandma before they pay off their debt.

Another finding from the survey is the unfortunate conclusion that debt begets more debt. Students whose parents borrowed to pay for their college educations are nearly twice as likely to take out loans themselves.

Mr. Conrath said that financial advisers are increasingly using age-based portfolios to help their clients pay down their college debt. The stock/bond mix gradually shifts as the client gets older, not unlike many 401K plans.

The New York Sun

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