With millennials starting to turn 40 in 2021, CNBC launched Make It Middle-aged millennials, a series that examines how the oldest members of this generation grew up against the backdrop of the Great Recession and the Covid-19 pandemic, student loans, stagnating wages and the rising cost of living.
Older millennials entered adulthood around the time of the 2008 financial crisis that followed University funding cuts, rising college costs and slow wage growth. The result: Millennials became them Debt generation for students.
As the oldest millennials turn 40 and nearing middle age this year, college debts continue to follow suit.
According to a recent survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of CNBC Make It of 1,000 U.S. adults aged 33 to 40, respondents raised an average of $ 21,880 in student loans for their education. Only 32% of those who took out loans paid it off in full, meaning the majority (68%) of older millennials are still paying off their college debts a decade or so later.
And while college graduates are generally better off – enjoy improved job security, longer life expectancy, higher income and greater financial stability – more than half (52%) of older millennials with college debts say their loans weren’t worth it. Check out offers from a same day payday loans
“A constant uphill battle” and little choice
Erin Becker, 36, owes over $ 40,000 in government and private student loans. Paying them off is “an ongoing uphill battle,” she says. “There is no comfort or security, just an omnipresent discomfort about the future.”
Becker was the first in her family to attend a four-year college when she enrolled at SUNY Potsdam in 2003 to study music education. Her parents took out student loans on her behalf.
“SUNY Potsdam wasn’t a good fit for me. It was very isolating and I didn’t have a lot of friends in the conservatory itself. So I got pretty depressed and decided to move home,” she says. “I don’t think I was mature enough to go straight to college. If I were to talk to my 17-year-old me, I might say, ‘Take some time to make sure this is really what you want .'”
“When I was in high school, debts were never discussed,” says Becker. “It was like going to college, you did.”
After several odd jobs, Becker opted for a two-year degree as a veterinary technician at Medaille College, a private college in Buffalo, New York, but this time she was responsible for paying the costs. She took out two personal loans: one valued at $ 8,835 and one valued at $ 13,600. She graduated in 2010, had over $ 20,000 in student debt, and was making just $ 12 an hour in a veterinary office.
“I always paid the minimum amount on my loans,” she recalls.
With no progress in paying back her tuition, she decided to do her bachelor’s degree (this time psychology) at the University of Buffalo, graduating in 2017. She took out an additional $ 32,000 in federal student loans to complete her degree.
“I owed a little over $ 54,000,” she recalls. “In the time I paid it off, I got it down to maybe $ 49,000.”
Becker gave birth to her first child in October and now works part-time as a customer service employee in a veterinary practice for $ 15 an hour.
“It’s frustrating and frankly embarrassing. I feel smarter and better than where I am now,” she says. Her husband earns around $ 80,000 a year as a mechanical engineer.
“And I have trouble identifying myself outside of my job,” says Becker. “I want to do good. I want to make a positive difference in the world, in my community, and I don’t think I’m doing that right now.”
But what frustrates Becker most is that she feels like going to college and getting into debt was never a real choice.
“Was it worth college? The answer is yes,” she says. “It is certainly more beneficial to have a degree than none. You have to go to college somehow. A college professor once said that today’s four-year bachelor’s degree is equivalent to a high school degree.
“In our parents’ generation there were entry-level jobs where you could lead a comfortable life on a single income – that no longer exists.”
Paying $ 200,000: “It was all consuming”
Jeffrey Street, 33, graduated from the University of Tennessee in 2009 and still remembers how hard it was to get a job. “The job market was so bad,” he says. “I was working for the Department of Parks and Recreation for the City of Knoxville, and my career prospects after graduation were to continue working for the Department of Parks and Recreation. I knew I wanted to do something different.”
Street decided to study law at the University of Idaho, where he met his future wife, Shannon. By the time they graduated in 2012, the couple had nearly $ 200,000 in student debt.
Shannon owed $ 17,125 from her bachelor’s degree and $ 87,058 from her law degree. Street had no undergraduate loans but owed over $ 92,000 from law school.
“I remember thinking to myself that if I paid it off very proactively after graduating from law school, the debt might not be so bad,” he says. “But the average interest rate on our loan was about 6.5 percent. It was about $ 1,000 a month in interest.”
Even after the couple passed the bar exam in 2013, they still struggled to find work. “I literally put in applications for every job I could get,” he says.
Street eventually took a job that filled shelves at Target from 3 a.m. to 10 a.m. so he could network and apply for legal jobs during the day. He says he would keep his suit in his car and put it on at a 7-eleven bathroom before interviews. Shannon took a job in the frame department of a local Michael.
Eventually, Street got his first legal job in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he made $ 36,000. The couple later moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area for better jobs and slowly began to make progress on their credit.
“All we thought about was student loans. It was all consuming,” he says. “We poured every extra dollar into our student loans. We didn’t take a vacation. We didn’t buy a new TV. (In fact, we still got our law school TV.) We took used furniture and clothes when they were on sale.” We just saved and saved. ”
Street says he and his wife waived childbirth for six years and didn’t attend friends’ weddings because of their student loans.
Today, Street has $ 27,630 in student debt and his wife owes $ 6,820. They now live in Boise, Idaho, have two young children, and feel that repayment is finally in sight. Street has even started putting money into a 529 fund so that his children “don’t have to bear the same burden.”
And while Street says he had to get his law degree to become a lawyer and is proud to have made such advances on his debt, both he and Becker say they support some kind of student debt relief – and tackle the student debt cycle – for generations to come.
“I can’t be blamed for someone else taking responsibility for my student loans. I’ve paid off my debt and I’m going to end it,” he says. “But I’ve been through it and I can tell you that the student guilt process wasn’t worth it.
“I wouldn’t wish anyone had the experience with student debt.”
CNBC Make It will feature additional stories about student loans, employment, wealth, diversity and health in the Middle-Aged Millennials franchise. If you are an older millennial (aged 33 to 40), share your story with us for a chance to be featured in a future issue.
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