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Student debt and the death of opportunity

The American Bar Association published an article this week entitled The Law School Bubble: How Long Will it Last if Grads Can’t Pay Bills?  In short– the feds are generous in handing out student loans, but while the cost of tuition has skyrocketed, the job market has stagnated.

I’ve recently had several opportunities to speak with prospective law students and new law students.  The one theme that I try to hammer home is that Student debt closes doors.

Five-figure debt? Try well into the six-figures...

Education theoretically creates opportunities.  But a graduate saddled with $160,000 of student debt can only pursue those opportunities she can afford. A Juris Doctor is a license to practice, but a grad with heavy student debt cannot hang her own shingle.  A grad with heavy student debt can’t run for political office, or pursue research opportunities or seek out another degree or teach.  A grad with heavy debt can’t be an entrepreneur.   A grad with heavy student debt cannot work in most government or public interest jobs.  There are some public loan forgiveness programs, but those don’t help during those first 10 years of work you have to put in before being eligible and those don’t help with the $80,000+ of that debt that is private loans.   A grad with heavy student debt must limit herself to the job opportunities that pay enough to cover her debt and  her living expenses.  Those jobs at entry level are evaporating quickly.

So many students, myself included, go into law school because in college they majored in fields they perceived to be “useless.”  Law school seemingly provides opportunities for a career, and opportunities to provide for yourself and your family.  That message is overly-optimistic.  A liberal arts student who enters law school with few-to-no job prospects, in this economy will likely leave law school with few-to-no job prospects plus six figures in debt.  Financially, that student is better off hitting the pavement and doing whatever she can to put that “useless” college degree to work, even if the work doesn’t pay well.

I studied abroad in Germany in 2002, and remembered feeling so bitter toward German students.  University education was publicly funded, and students even received a governmental stipend for living expenses.  I was disgusted by that system, and felt that “free” schooling hindered students from taking ownership and responsibility over their education.

My perspective is markedly different now.  I’m on a 30 year student loan repayment plan, and pay nearly $1000 per month in loans.  I ran an analysis of what the effect would be if I paid an additional $1000 per month…oh, my debt would just be paid off in sixteen years.  Even when you’re working hard, and making timely payments, and taking responsibility for your financially questionable educational decisions, the prospects are bleak.  You become debt fatigued.  Why pay more money into a hole that will seemingly never be filled? And of course, student debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.  If I were to lose my job, or become ill or disabled such that I couldn’t work, that debt will stick right there with me.

An educated citizenry benefits the whole country.  The only benefit I can imagine of sending young grads out into the workforce with crushing educational debt is the pulling-yoursef-up-by-the-bootstraps feeling after paying those debts off (if ever). If there is a justification for individual students carrying the financial burden of the American system of higher education, I would love to hear it.

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