Americans Under 35: Going Broke Trying to Become Middle Class?

It’s a look at our nation’s future through the eyes of the folks who have to make it work for the next 50 years — Americans under the age of 35. They’re everywhere across the spectrum, whether it’s stuck in traffic on the way to their job, waiting in the unemployment line, protesting at the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, or fighting our longest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Facing fewer job opportunities and high student loan debt, many 20-somethings now expect that they will do worse in their lifetimes for themselves than their parents generation.

Some facts:

  • Average tuition is three times higher today than in 1980.
  • Two out of three students graduate with student loan debt, at an average of over $24,000.
  • African American students are more likely to take out student loans, and to graduate with higher debt levels.
  • The student loan default rate rose 31% over just 2 years.

This is the news from a new study, “The Economic State of Young America,” out yesterday from Demos, a progressive think tank, and Young Invincibles, a non-profit that seeks to advocate for Americans ages 18 to 34.

“The Great Recession has intensified the impact of 30 years of negative economic trends across young Americans’ lives,” the Demos report says. “Almost all young people make less than the previous generation at the same age.”

The full report on The Economic State of Young America is available at Demos’ website.

Joining Dylan on the show to discuss is Tamara Draut, Vice President of Policy and Programs at Demos, and author of Strapped: Why America’s 20 and 30 Somthings Can’t Get Ahead.  Yesterday,  she was joined by Erica Kadel, a student at Fordham University.  Erica describes what it’s like to know she will be $75,000 in debt by the time she graduates.

Here’s part of their conversation on the effect of high student debt on young Americans.

Dylan Ratigan: Erica Cadell is a Junior here in new york at Fordham University and took part in this study and get this, will be $75,000 in debt by the time she graduates. Erica, how old will you be when you have all this debt?

Erica Cadell: I’ll be 20.

DR: 20 years old with $75,000 worth of debt.

EC: Yes.

DR: What are you getting in exchange for this debt?

EC: Hopefully a lifetime of work that I’m actually involved in and that I want to be involved in.

DR: That really is the story of almost every young person in America which is — “I’m willing to take whatever the risk is going into debt to secure an opportunity to go to an American university, so that I have an access to a lifetime of possibility that i might not otherwise have access to.”

Tamara Draut: When they come out they face really tough challenges, a job market that’s super tough on young people. Student loan debts. Can you imagine 20 years old with $75,000 in student loan debt? It’s a wake-up call for our nation is this the way we want to build the middle class and the answer should be solidly no, and we need to start talking about how we turn this around.

DR:  How typical do you feel you are? In other words, when you look at your friends, Erica, and your fellow classmates at Fordham and friends at other colleges, how common is it for folks to have even a little, let alone, a lot of debt at the age of 20, 21, 22 years old?

EC:  I would say a majority of the people that I know have some sort of debt. It’s nearly impossible to try and pay the full cost of tuition. I go to fordham, and if you want housing as well along with tuition, it’s $55,000 a year. What family has $55,000 a year of extra income that they can be throwing towards something? Not many.

DR: If you look back to post-World War II and america’s view on education, the G.I. Bill and everything that we’ve done or used to do where we would look at the young people in this country and say, listen. We will help you get an education, and in exchange for that we would like for you to use your education to help make america more prosperous.

It feels as if what’s happened we’ve abandoned that concept and investing in the education of our young people, and instead are saying “our young people have an opportunity for debt creation and rent-seeking if the face of fear,” If don’t do what we want, go to this college and pay your money,  your future will not exist. What’s happened?

TD: We’ve turned the whole thing on its head. it used to be we sent kids to college, mostly with grants, that they didn’t have to pay back.  The GI Bill was a big step to opening the doors of college to a lot more people than had been able to go before.  Then in 1965, we took another giant leap where we actually created the system of grants and loans that still exist today, except it was more about grants to help first generation, lower income families send their kids to school.

DR:  As an equalizing event in a country that’s predicated on opportunity, opportunity, and predicated on the broad and equal resources of our educational system.

TD:  That’s right. historically higher education has been our primary lever of opportunity in this country, and right now that lever is seriously broken because it requires $25,000 on average to get a diploma now in student loan debt.  A lot of people like Erica who have so much more, and new in a really lousy job market, I think we’re finally starting to see that this is not a good plan for investing in the future of this country.

DR: So, what should we be doing?

TD:  Polls show that the majority of Americans think that Occupy Wall Street does indeed reflect their values, and so the first thing is we all have to stand up for what we believe and for better future direction in this country. It’s going to take sizable shift in the political will in this country to do what we need to do to rebuild the middle class.

We absolutely have to make this economy work for people who don’t have four-year bachelor degrees — which is the majority of young people.  2/3 of young people don’t have a bachelors degree and they are not going to get a bachelors degree. I fundamentally believe we need a blue collar middle class, we need to again make things in this country and node to allow young people who don’t have bachelors degrees to have a decent quality of life. That’s important, too.

How has student debt affected your standard of living?  If you’re under 35, do you feel like your education was a necessary investment, or are you finding yourself underwater and struggling with student loans?   Do you think Erica took on too much student debt, or was that a smart move on her part? 

Tell us what you think in the comments below, on our Facebook page.  You can also email Dylan at dylan@dylanratigan.com.

Megan Robertson is a digital producer for DylanRatigan.com.