Indebted millennial to boomer: Do we have you to thank for this?

My first professional job in journalism was as a part-time copy editor at the Lansing State Journal on the features desk, an opportunity I have always been grateful for. I was an old 21, about to turn 22, landing what I’d thought – at the time – was a gig of a lifetime.

The LSJ was a fantastic paper with a lot of recognizable bylines I’d familiarized myself with during my time at Michigan State University, and I’d watched reporters there springboard to larger papers in Michigan. But if there’s one thing I’ll never forget about my time there, it was some comments from John Schneider, who’d been the metro columnist for 20 years or so before leaving for other pursuits, including Bridge -- where we’re now sharing bylines once again.

When John found out that the LSJ was my “first” paper, he remarked that “when I was starting out, you had to work at two or three smaller papers before making your way to the State Journal.” Huh. Not quite the advice I was expecting from a veteran.

At the time, I shrugged it off, but I was reminded of those sentiments – the elder condescendingly scolding the younger – when similar comments popped up in John’s Bridge column last week wondering how today’s college graduates wind up in so much debt.

“But there are other, less expensive ways, to get a college education,” Schneider wrote. “For example, starting off at a community college, living with parents for the first year or two, taking one of those part-time jobs nobody else wants, or working during the day and going to night school.”

I’ll tell you what, John – we were told to stay away from community colleges because job recruiters (from your generation) would be looking closely at transcripts to see if graduates were able to handle four years in a sustained environment. (My experience? As a high schooler, I was told to go to a four-year institution and get on whatever that school’s newspaper staff immediately; clips from two-year college papers wouldn’t be enough to get a job.)

Most of us chose to attend schools away from home because we wanted the best education possible (again, told to us by the previous generation if we wanted a job), which meant having to move away from home. And yes, we did work part-time in between classes, often working in fields similar to what we were studying (which your generation told us to do if we wanted a job).

John also grouses about one particular student’s choice to study abroad, which is baffling since he lives in the back yard of one of the best study-abroad programs in the nation (which, by the way, often costs just as much per credit hour as a normal class on campus). Again, we were told to study abroad because job recruiters (from your generation) said we need a “worldly, well-rounded” experience...if we wanted to get a job.

But when John talks about the costs of higher education and why our generation should just “pay up” for it, it shows he’s shockingly out-of-touch with trends that have affected recent college attendees over the last decade or so.

Divorce rates soared around the late 1970s, peaked in the 1980s and finally began to drop off in the 1990s – right around the time when the current crop of debt-laden graduates were born. Though well-meaning parents would love to help as much as they can, their contributions on single incomes were likely minimal, so we had to take out loans. But even students from dual-income homes might not have had a golden parachute landing onto campus; the cost of raising a child is another bill that has spiked dramatically with no peak in sight.

Other crises aside – incomes stifled in the 1980s, the foreclosure and unemployment crises of the 2000s and 2010s – I wonder if John ever had the conversations I had with students at MSU while I was there, beyond his own children. Things like “my parents don’t have education,” “I’m the first in my family to go to college,” “there’s no future for me back home” were strong indicators that college was out-of-reach and absolutely necessary all at once.

No recent college graduate doesn’t want to pay back the costs of higher education. John is absolutely right that we knew what were getting into. Where you’re confused, John, is mistaking reluctance to pay back for refusal to pay back. Hell yeah, we’re going to complain about the cost of loans – they’re expensive! You’ve never complained about the cost of anything, ever? And we’ve got other things to pay for: Food, shelter, clothes. But the obvious thing we’re trying to pay for is the kind of lifestyle your generation told us to pursue.

Give us a break and let us deal with our own finances, or maybe you guys can help out. Your choice.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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John Schneider
Fri, 06/13/2014 - 2:39pm
Aaron: I can't, for the life of me, understand why a simple statement of fact - that most journalists came to the LSJ after a stint, or two, at smaller newspapers - would hurt your feelings. It seems to me that it could have just as easily been taken as a compliment. Obviously you didn't see it that way, and since you've harbored the resentment all these years, it's clear to me that it had a lasting impact on you. Please accept my belated apology. I couldn't see what on earth that long-ago observation - or "advice," as you call it - had to do with my recent Bridge piece about student debt until your fourth paragraph. Ahhhh …. you felt "scolded" in both cases, which, I guess, makes me a serial scolder. Again, I apologize. I didn't mean to offend your sensibilities a second time in the span of a couple of decades, or so. As for the substance of your column ... you seem to have put a lot of stock in the marching orders issued by the ubiquitous "they" - the bogeymen you assign to my generation: avoid community colleges, study abroad, attend only top-tier universities, etc. Well, you can bet that the ranks of the movers and shakers will always be full of people who - through necessity, or choice - ignored every bit of that advice. As I wrote in my Bridge column, there are many different approaches to a college education - some more expensive than others. Creativity, flexibility, ingenuity, determination and plain hard work can go a long way in earning that degree. Good luck with your career.
Fri, 06/13/2014 - 5:30pm
With two worthy writers already in the ring, I should be hesitant to step in -- but if this were a real-life sparring match, I'd boo this cheap shot: "I didn’t mean to offend your sensibilities a second time in the span of a couple of decades, or so." Perhaps you deserve a quarter-point for omitting "delicate," but that swipe still puts your apology alongside those with the phrase "if anyone was offended . . ." Aaron is debating your views on financing higher education and whether you're "shockingly out-of-touch" with four decades of social and economic change. He deserves to be engaged factually and respectfully.
Phill Orth
Sun, 06/15/2014 - 9:46am
Once again are the voice of our generation and one of reason and common sense.
Fri, 06/13/2014 - 3:59pm
Baby Boomers are truly the "Ungretest Generation."
Fri, 06/13/2014 - 4:00pm
"UnGreatest Generation." Apologies for the typing error.
David Waymire
Fri, 06/13/2014 - 4:30pm
Probably worth noting that when John went to college the state picked up 75 percent of tuition. Today, that number is down to 22 percent, thanks to tax cuts that have forced cuts in state support for higher Ed. A lot easier to pay for college with summer earnings in 1974 than in 2004...or 2014.
John Q. Public
Fri, 06/13/2014 - 8:32pm
Not probably--definitely. Were it not for that, I and many of my K-12 classmates never would have been able to go. As it were, I attended one of the in-state "directional" universities because U-M and the one Ivy League school that accepted me meant large loans that I imagined I would never have been able to pay back. I ignored all the advice to go to the best school that would take me, and maybe suffered for it, but I had only low four-figure debt when I graduated. While in absolute agreement with the major substance of your comment--tax support has fallen by 70%--I quibble with tax cuts "forcing" cuts in state support to higher ed. Those are the result of POLITICAL decisions. We had, and have the money for higher-ed support, but decided to spend it on prisons and "economic development" scams instead. Fifty million in film-industry credits could give 10,000 college students $5,000 per year each. The Republican Party is screwing us, but it shouldn't surprise anyone that they keep doing it. After all, we keep going back to the polling stations every two years and telling them we like it!
Big D
Sun, 06/15/2014 - 8:49am
John Q.: I suggest that you look at the historical change in college tuition rates vs. the cost of living (i.e. real inflation). State support is only a part of funding for higher learning. The cabal of teachers unions and administrators, promoting their school with ever-gaudier features ($) has made college costs accelerate. I'm sure that the evil Republicans had you in mind when they cut funding. I'm sure the democrats had nothing to do with film subsidies and other economic development boondoggles, "renewable energy" and other waste. Like Aaron, you are caught up in the "victim" mentality...poor me (us), we were victimized by the evil boomers (them). Sad.
Fri, 06/13/2014 - 7:00pm
The graphic you use for this piece is hilarious and insightful. It's what caught my eye when you posted this piece on Facebook. Thanks for speaking up Aaron. Excellent points. Like I said on Facebook, the only thing I disagree on is that I knew what I was doing when I signed up for $22k in loans my first year at a state college. I said I knew what I was doing, but no, I didn't have any clue how that debt would balloon to more than $60k in total by the time I graduated. (and I held a job every year I was in college, while attending full time). I dont think most people have any clue what student loans really mean. It's not just a number, it's a complete upheaval to the way we live, a ever-tightening shackle as the years wear on, a leash on ambition, and a fear monster that keeps many creative kids from pursuing ideas and works that inspire.
Sun, 06/15/2014 - 9:08am
With summer jobs and some government grants and loans and a campus job in the early 1970's I was able to go to college and leave with a degree and less than $10,000 in debt. I didn't attend U of M when I saw the cost, choosing a cheaper "directional" MU instead. The loan was paid off in a few years without a great deal of pain. For the most part that kind of scenario is no longer a reality for students. We sent five children to MSU, and from 1996 to 2008 the cost about doubled from the first to the last to graduate. Some of them received some nice scholarships and all held jobs while there, one actually wrote for the State News and a small weekly during college. The difference between their experience and that of their mother's and mine was that their scholarships and earnings from jobs on campus and during the summer could only make a dent in the cost of a college education. Ours pretty much funded it. They only came out without college loans to pay because we chose to help them. Both mr. Schneider and Mr. Foley make some valid arguments and offer some useful observations, but I'm not sure that either one of them have really illuminate the underlying trends and causes for the issues and the complaints raised by Mr. foley. An education costs a great deal mor than it once did. State and Federal support for students has dwindled. Parents often won't and/or can't recognize this shift and accept that their children require much mor financial support longer in life to avoid massive debt. I'd like to see an article that dealt with "why" - not "whaa" or maybe an article that took a look at high school and college GPA trends during this same period of time.
Sun, 06/15/2014 - 9:57am
I must thank Mr. Foley for the most entertaining and educational articles I have read on Bridge. Each time I read “..we were told…” I had a chuckle. Mr. Foley feels he and his generation want no responsibility for their lives, for what they do or have, and that they want to be told by others what they should be doing and thinking. The article is quite informative, with each chuckle I got a bit more understanding of why our social ills seem to be growing, people don’t want to be responsible and they don’t want to think for themselves. I was told (by my high school counselor, the auto companies were hiring) not to waste my time or money going to college. I have to admit I didn’t take that direction. I had been taught to take responsibility for my life and actions that meant I had to think for myself and live with the consequences. I am from a different generation than Mr. Foley. My daughters seem to be from a different one too. Mr. Foley, thanks again for the entertainment and bit of understanding.
Sun, 06/15/2014 - 12:44pm
Every time I read one of these posts like Duane's about "personal responsibility" being at the heart of our current economic crisis, I cringe. It implies that those of us who struggled through a university education, working nearly full time, somehow have no right to complain about massive student debt because we deserve it. This bootstrap mentality is absurd,and ignores the basic facts on the ground. The world needs certain jobs, like teachers, journalists, and veterinarians, filled. And those jobs come with a certain level of training that is required, through a certain degree process, that necessarily costs an absurd amount of money. Are we, as a nation, to have these jobs filled by only those who can afford to pay the exorbitant cost of entry? The fact is, we earned these degrees because it was necessary to do so to enter our fields. Assuming that we are entitled little spoiled brats just shows that many are out of touch with how higher ed has changed over the last couple decades.
Sun, 06/15/2014 - 8:22pm
Eric, It doesn't seem we read the same article. I made no comment on the economy or why people are struggling financially. I was commenting on how Mr. Foley seemed to feel about what Mr. Schneider said in his article was not valid and Mr. Foley shouldn't have had to consider doing those things to lessen any schooling debt. Mr. Foley seemed to be saying it wasn't his fault he had not tried them. He said he only did what he was told. I understand how that would make education cost more. I wonder if you think like Mr. Foley that Mr. Schneiders suggestions of going to community college , living with your parents and commuting , working partime, or that not studing over seas are not valid educational cost reducers? I was surpise that Mr. Foley didn't include any comments about degrees taking more than the 4 years they were designed to take. That surely seems like an adder to the cost. I am curious where you came up with your 'spoiled brat' claim. After rereading my comments I couldn't find it my remarks or even any suggestion that Mr. Foley fit that catagory. I just saw him putting the responsibility on others for telling him something different than what Mr. Schneider was suggesting. And that Mr. Foley neither took responsibility for thinking about what was told to him or about what he did. As for Mr. Schneider's suggests, I have to admit, I have know those who who have done all of them and actually did reduce their educational costs. And they have been professionally successful. I am even aware of doing those things being a plus in the interviews when applying for their first job. I am aware of how interviewers have felt that if a person were so committed to getting an education that they would make those sacrifices and take ownership of their education they had demonstrated a work ethic that would be beneficial to their respective companies. As for the social ills, it was Mr. Foley's idea of not taking responsibility for one's own actions and not thinking before acting that I feel creates more problems then are necessary. I in no way mentioned anything about jobs or economic situations. You remarks made me wonder if you read what I wrote or did you simply saw what you wanted to see.
Aaron Foley
Mon, 06/16/2014 - 5:24pm
Between the four comments (and counting) you've made thus far, can you please show me where I said people my age "shouldn't care," "don't care" or "shouldn't take responsibility?" Or did you completely miss my last paragraph?
Wed, 06/18/2014 - 8:32pm
Mr. Foley, I would like to address your points individually. However, I am struggling to find where I quoted you saying, “…I said people my age “shouldn’t care,” “don’t care” or “shouldn’t take responsibility?” I couldn’t find them referenced in any of my four comments. And that concerns me as I feel the context or at least the whole sentences they appeared in would help frame the thought being conveyed so I could respond specifically. When I use formal quotes “…” I am actually presenting what was written or said, when I am paraphrasing, or using a more broadly used phrase or word, or when I am suggesting a possibly different or non-standard meaning of a word or phrase I use ‘…’ single quotes to indicate a difference. I am quite possibly wrong, I have been before and expect I will be again, but I still will try to address your quotes of concern. Regarding the responsibility, I have been told the reason someone did something was because someone else told them to do it and I have found that has been justification for avoiding personal responsibility. I tried that when I was a child and the comment I got back from my Mother was, ‘If Jimmy told you to jump off a bridge would you do it?’ and then she would explain to me how I should think for myself and that I was responsible for whatever I did no matter who said what. I used similar comments on our children. I have also found that both the ‘I was told’ and ‘I wasn’t told’ when investigating unplanned work events were also used to deflect personal responsibility. Thus each time you said “…we were told…” all that came to mind was avoidance of personal responsibility for actions and a lack of thinking about what was said. When you include the ‘we’ I interpreted that as being your generation since those who must have been telling you were talking to you and those in a similar situation. That is how I came to believe that you were not wanting to be responsible, you were not wanting to think for yourself and not own your actions. When you included the ‘royal’ we in “…we were told…” that also suggested an attempt at avoiding personal responsibility. The most common way that people who feel responsible and that think about advice will start with ‘I chose to follow…’ specific advice. I said nothing about your caring or not caring, though the “shouldn’t care,” “don’t care” could be a simple extension of not wanting to be responsible, but I have not found such suggestions in my comments about your caring one way or another. I can see why you would presume a link between caring and responsibility. Most people who take responsibility for themselves and their actions care about the consequences of their choices. If someone is unwilling or unable to take responsible then I can see how people might feel that such a person isn’t likely to care or not feel they should care. Caring most commonly comes from being responsible. I feel responsible for my family, I care for my family, I feel responsible for my home and my part in the neighborhood, I care for my community. I believe all of Mr. Schneider’s ideas were credible since I have known those who made them work. However, I don’t believe that they are right for everyone nor do I recall Mr. Schneider saying they should be followed blindly. I also believe there are other ideas such as extending the time it taken to earn a degree as an option. It would be nice if a BS degree could be earned in 4 years (I do know someone who did it in 3 using many of Mr. Schneider’s suggestions), but reality is that 6 or 8 or more years can be the best way for some. None of these in anyway lessens the knowledge that is gain while earning a degree or limits how they apply what they have learned. If anything I am disappointed that those whose advice you followed were so limited in their experience not to have included other possibilities or qualified their advice with a reminder to decide which fits best for the individual. I wonder since following the advice you had what advice you would give to students in high school about their future education, about the cost and the means to pay for such an education. Thank you for taking the time to read my comments and challenging what I have said. I believe education and the paying for education are important issue worthy of discussion to draw out a diversity of ideas in how to address these issues.
Wed, 06/18/2014 - 9:04pm
Not to ignore your last paragraph, why should you be given a break? What break do you believe your predecessors were given and what makes you so much more deserving then them? We hear much about how little taxpayers are paying for colleges/universities today and how they should pay more. Is that an alternative you want? Have you noticed that those same people and schools fail to acknowledge how they were established and whose money paid for their development? You seem to feel we should blindly trust you to repay the cost of your education and yet you dismiss the ideas offered to those who will be entering to help them better manage the cost of their educations, you don’t even suggest how the educational debt might be repaid you simply want to be left alone. It seems you want a break and yet you aren’t offering suggestions on how you would use such a break to address how educational debts might be paid. Do you feel that you should have this break simply because you have the ‘good intentions’ to deal with it? Here in Michigan there is a great deal of debt created by people with ‘good intentions’, but the reality is that ‘good intentions’ do pay the debts actions do. I recognize that for many that debt is an important way to pay for an education, but I also respect those who each quarter/semester work and fret to pay their educational bills without debt. You want your break and what would you offer to those who don’t need that break because they did the things Mr. Schneider offered? Debt is one of many methods to address the cost of education, it should not be considered the only method.
Sun, 06/15/2014 - 10:18am
I'm with the Millennial on this. I'm not a baby boomer (older) but I'm not deceived about my own experience vs. what college-age people experience today - I'm lucky. My parents were able (with a stretch) to pay for my tuition at a small liberal-arts college. (I had a scholarship and cleaned toilets for expenses, but it was still big for them.) Then graduate school - where I was able to be self-supporting via assistantships. I finished a Ph.D. with no debt at all. I doubt a similar course is available to many today. One of the first lessons for "older" people is to avoid the "in my day" lecture. Want to be useful to the young? Listen and watch. Be sympathetic and supportive. Offer advice when asked, but not before. And count your blessings. You lived in a golden time.
Mon, 06/16/2014 - 9:34am
Vivienne, Are you so sure it isn't available today? Do you think people should try? Is the other part of the debt issue the ability or is it the willingness to repay the debt? It seems to me that the concerns about paying for an education is a concern when the lender is asking to be repaid not when the money is being spent, do you feel such delayed concern contributes to the size of the debt? I ask these question of you because you seem to have taken the time and made the effort to think about the issue and have learn about it through personal experience. My Frustration is Mr. Foley and othesr seem to have no interest in trying to think about what it should take to earn a degree, even why they wanted a degree. I will show my bias then ask for your views. Many of those who I know who worked to get their degree were more interested in what they could do with the knowledge they would have gained by earning the degree rather then simply wanting a degree. The desire for knowledge seem to drive them to find the ways to pay for the degree. Since you did much to pay for your degree, why did you make those sacrifices for education? Why did you select the degree program you followed? Why did you sacrifice to avoid educational debt? Relatively speaking, each generation is different, can we be so sure that simiilar opportunities and activities don't exist across the generations. Do you think if an example of how it could be done were developed Mr. Foley and others would acknowledge it and grant that educational debt was a forgone conclusion?
Mon, 06/16/2014 - 1:34pm
Unfortunately, our elected decisions makers are either too old or too out of touch to understand how big of a burden this is.
Mon, 06/16/2014 - 4:59pm
Eric, I am disappoint to hear such prejudice about age, it becomes a risk of outting up barriers to open discussions. I would like to be part of a discussion that tries to develop an approach that addresses the cost issue in a broader voew rather then simply making complains about cost and debt. Mr. Foley obviously doesn't feel students should have any cares about costs and spending. With that attitude why would anyone feel he has something to contribute to such discuss or would be willing to be part of a solution that would include student responsibilities. I think their would be value in describing the costs for a half dozen different degrees, the value such degrees would have to Michigan (tax dollars, jobs, etc.), and a range of proposals how to address the costs. Addressing the cost should include some student responsibilities since the voting public is not so flushed with money that they are willing to support any program that doesn't pay part of the cost. The things Mr. Schneider metnioined in his article have been out there for a number of years and if the discussion doesn't include them then its credibility would be lowered. What would you like to see happen?
Sun, 06/15/2014 - 12:10pm
There are so many reason why people, like my daughter took the gamble on her future with a college education paid for by loans. In her case, she graduated high school in 2006. We live on the west side of Michigan that has a lot of manufacturing. Unfortunately, the "dot com" crash and additional economic factors resulted in massive lay offs in our area, lack of summer or part time jobs due to the number of people looking for work. Gas prices were very high. If my daughter wasn't a full time college student, we could not keep her on our insurance. There were no full time jobs with benefits available. We looked at community college ( I got an associates degree in Lansing CC and was very happy with my education. I transferred easily to WMU through the MACRO agreement.). Due to the cost of gas, used car, and cost of out of area tuition, the cost was estimated to be cheaper than going away to school - not by as much as we thought. Yes she chose to go on loans. She is diligently working to pay them back and consolidate them. It took her more than 4 years to finish her degree. After graduation, she took a job and works 40+ hours (and additional part time when she could) to pay her bills while she looked for a permanent job. She makes $15.00 per hour with no benefits. At one time, her monthly loan payments were about $800 per month. Because of the job market when she graduated from college, the colleges were recommending to some that they continue on and get their masters degree. She did not, but she is looking at taking more classes to make herself more marketable (she has a degree in social science). As I said before, she took a gamble. She didn't have a lot of choices, and she put a lot of pressure on herself to chose a career path that would combine her interests and skills with a way to make a living ( a tough thing for young adults to do especially with a job market and economy that is changing). If only we all had a crystal ball, so we could avoid any detours in our lives. In addition, when college programs requIre credits in areas that are not directly related to the program, it causes unnecessary costs. Most cannot afford the luxury of getting a "well-rounded" education with electives like a P. E. Credit or a fine arts appreciation class. My husband and I would have loved to help her more with the cost of college, but the layoffs and poor economy was a hardship on us as well. Needless to say, financially, our daughter is barely keeping her head above water. She lives frugally, but has no savings. She doesn't blame anyone for the situation she is in. Sadly, she and a lot of other kids are seemingly resolved that this is their "lot" in life.
Jay Cobb
Sun, 06/15/2014 - 9:06pm
I find it borderline pathetic that neither of these writers have any sort of "touch" on the most egregious and infuriating aspect of this debate. My generation is forced to try and build a future for ourselves and our nation while the Greediest Generation (Boomers) have been pushing our country's priorities in the most heinous directions possible: -Banking institutions that rig and sink the global economy are loaned all the money they ask for at 0% interest while students that believe in the "bootstrap" mentality/want to receive training and education are being profited off of at nearly 7% interest. -State-funding for higher-education institutions has sunk at the same time directly correlating to increase for state prison funding. - We are the future of this nation, and our future is being spent. I have paid into Social Security since I was 16 years old yet the general debate regarding the program is that it is an "entitlement" and since it was moved into general fund appropriation, it will likely be spent before I am old enough to access it. We are being profited off of in countless ways all the while seeking to better ourselves for the profit of our country's future. - Universities are using students' tuition money in dishonest and spendthrift ways, and we are allowed no next to no say while faculty is allowed next to no liability. At my alma mater CMU for example, former university President Michael Rao publicly pledged years back that Central's new Events Center would come from private donors, yet it was revealed in 2012 that $10 million was allocated from the university. When asked about this, Rao (who currently makes almost 500,000 a year salary at Virginia Commonwealth) declined to comment and directed inquiries to current CMU President George Ross, who was not involved with Central at the time of the center's construction. The trust gap between current student debtees and the government, universities, and banking institutions could not be larger. Here's some further reading from writers who actually have an idea of what Milennials are going through, rather than projecting their condescension and personal frustrations onto the future they actively play a part in fleecing with such asinine articles as this or Schneider's:
Sun, 06/15/2014 - 10:53pm
One question that constantly hits me is, do college students investigate the job and pay prospects of any major they are considering before jumping into debt to finance their choosen pursuit? Seems from reading this article and many of the comments that this is not the case. Or is this just another failure of our ed system? Another question regarding the carping about lowered state aid to the U's we hear here, What do the state tax payers get for this investment? Seems many students don't finish their degree, many that complete a degree don't end up in jobs that require a degree afterward, and many that do complete one end up taking their degree and moving to another state afterward. How is this a good deal and why should we throw more money at it?
Mon, 06/16/2014 - 9:41am
Boomers that don't have kids in school don't seem to be able to comprehend that their 4-year university tuition in the 1970's is the cost of today's community college tuition. And even older it gets worse, my grandparents thought it was $1500/year at MSU. A 17 year old cannot borrow $40K for a car or house but everyone is just fine lending that amount for a 4-year university. Not everyone needs to go but those that can should have to take on a 20 year burden to do so.
Mon, 06/16/2014 - 10:51am
sorry 17 year old can't sign binding contract therefore can't borrow
Mon, 06/16/2014 - 1:33pm
Student loans are binding contracts