On Student Debt

NOTE: Similar to my last serious post about vaccines, I’ve taken care to put in a lot of reliable sources into this post.  I encourage people to check my sources and let me know if I’ve made any errors. 

Last summer, my girlfriend Louise and I were out at some store (or was it the movies?) when we heard an elderly couple talking.  They were both saying they were disgusted with America’s educational system and missed the days when the U.S. had the best schools in the world.  Louise moved here when she was around ten from Senegal and told me, “I can’t believe they think the U.S. was ever the smartest country.”

It kills me that the American educational system is now basically a joke.  It hurts even more that we’ve gotten so bad that incredibly intelligent people like my girlfriend aren’t even aware of how amazing our schools used to be; that in the 1950s we had arguably the best educational system in the world.

File:Little Rock integration protest.jpg

At least, you know, after segregation ended.  Can you believe this is from 1959?

How long ago those days now feel.  The PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) is widely considered one of the best measures of each country’s educational system.  Every 3 years, 15 year-olds from different countries take a standardized test.  The latest results are from 2012, where America performed below average in mathematics, readings, and science.

In math, we’re 31st.  In science, we’re number 24.  We managed to reach number 21 in reading.


On the bright side, many Americans are too uneducated too understand how sad this is.

It’s not just official rankings that paint a sorrowful picture.  You don’t have to spend much time asking around to hear some real horror stories about this country’s schools.  I’ve already highlighted a few of the issues my high school had, not the least of which was our school police officer mace bombing an entire cafeteria.  A five-second internet search reveals some truly disgusting school failures our students have to deal with.


From one of my favorite, and most unsettling, Reddit posts.

But by far the worst thing about this country’s educational system is how students are punished for attending college.  Nearly every other first-world country has at least heavy subsidization of its higher education; meaning that it is mostly paid for by its citizens’ tax dollars.  Yes, it raises taxes, but on the whole it creates a more educated public that can progress society.

One of my favorite infographics that sums up the situation better than I can, from Tickld.

The situation sucks and is only getting worse.   Average student loan debt keeps rising; it’s now over $27,000 for a 4-year degree.  College debt has now exceeded credit card debt.  Yet every year college tuition just keeps on rising.  It’s utterly insane.

I was incredibly luckily.  Since I finished near the top of my high school class, I was able to attend the University of Rhode Island nearly for free.  My total cost was around $5,000, which my Dad kindly took a loan for and covered for me.  Veterinary school, however, has not been so kind to me.

By the time I’m done vet school, I’ll have racked up $350,000 in debt.  The average starting salary for a veterinarian?   $65,404 per year.  That means I will owe over 5 years’ salary BEFORE considering interest.

Yes, you have to pay interest on student loans.  To me, that is the single most disgusting fact about this whole thing.  You want the individual to pay for college out of their own pocket?  You want the government to consistently cut down its assistance year after year?  Fine, that sucks but I guess you can deal with it.  But you want to actually charge me 5.4 – 7.9% interest on each of my loans while I’m still in school?  You can’t even wait for me to finish my education before you pile on these insane extra charges?


Yes, yes I have.

Everything about this sucks.  Look, not everyone should go to college; I don’t think we should be telling high schoolers that it’s the only available option for them.  There are plenty of amazing and rewarding careers that don’t require a college degree.  But if you want to go to college, then you shouldn’t be limited by your financial situation.  Isn’t the job of a civilized society to ensure that all people who want to work hard and better themselves have that opportunity?

To be fair, there have been improvements in recent years.  The PAYE plan is the most important, in my opinion.  This means that no matter how large your student loan debt is, you only have to pay 10% of your discretionary income (total income – 150% poverty guideline for your family size) each year.  This means I’ll only have to pay about $5,000 each year for my own student loans, which is extremely reasonable given my salary.

But of course, there’s still a catch.  With PAYE, the remainder of your student loan debt is wiped clean after 20 years.  But instead of just letting that money disappear, you have to pay taxes on it as though it were income.  This means that I’ll have to pay about $100,000 all at once twenty years after I graduate.  So I better be saving another $5,000 a year or be prepared to take out another loan 20 years from now.

But like I said, that’s still better than what things used to be.  Even if I save $5,000 and pay $5,000 back on my loans each year, my salary is still about $55,000 each year (before taxes, of course).  That makes it worth going to school, although I’m not sure if it was worth the 8 year investment of vet school.  4 seems more reasonable.  But anyway, enough about my grumblings on vet med’s financial situation.  In broader terms, the PAYE plan was a great step forward.

Recently, President Obama unveiled a new plan: 2 free years of Community College for all students with a GPA of at least 2.5.  Of course, this is just a proposal and hasn’t been put into practice yet.  But still, when I first heard this news I thought it was a joke.  I’d lost hope of the United States ever making an effort to change the cost of college; I couldn’t believe this was actually being put forward.  I figured this would get some opposition from hard-core republicans, but I didn’t expect so much backlash from moderate and even left-leaning people.

usa today

I love reading USA Today and usually agree with all their op-eds; I find them a very reasonable and middle-of-the-road paper.  But I just couldn’t believe they were arguing this.

I have no idea how so many people are so resistant to fixing a broken system.  I know I’ve used more statistics than commentary in this post, but let me be clear on my view here.  America’s higher education system is utterly broken.  We are charging insane amounts of money for an, at best, average education.  We are entrapping millions of young students with debt that will cripple them their whole lives when their parents got to attend college nearly for free.  It is unfair and disgusting.

Like I said before, not everyone is built for college.  You shouldn’t be forced to go if you’d rather pursue something else.  But if you think getting a higher education is right for you, you should have easy access to it.  An educated citizenship is the cornerstone of any great civilization.  With the billions we spend on defense and bailing out corporations, are we really expected to believe we can’t spend any more on subsidizing school?  That giving two free years of community college will somehow destroy our nation?

I truly hope we can follow the path Obama has started and start making things a little easier for the next class of college students, and maybe even help out my own.  I’ll leave you all with my favorite political cartoon; a piece by Jeff Parker that perfectly captures the problems my generation face.  For the first time in this blog’s history, I don’t think a caption is needed.  This cartoon says it all on its own.


Please feel free to share your own student debt experiences in the comment section below.


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I'm a 24 year-old veterinary student, novelist, & aspiring screenwriter. I'm trying out this blogging thing in my spare time.

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