By Seni Tienabeso, Lindsey Griswold, and Anthony Rivas, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — By his account, Elie Kirkland shouldn’t have been at Morehouse College’s commencement last year, when billionaire Robert Smith pledged to the class of 2019 to “put a little fuel in your bus” by paying off millions of dollars in their student loans.
Kirkland was one of 396 graduating from the historically black college. The senior was supposed to graduate in 2018 but didn’t because of financial aid issues. Kirkland had fallen behind on credit card payments and his parents had taken out loans to help him graduate. Before Smith announced his promise, Kirkland was ready to walk away with over $100,000 in debt.
Instead, he owes nothing.
“When that happened, my credit score, first of all, went up tremendously,” Kirkland told ABC News. “I just have so much more freedom. I’m not handicapped to that bad credit monster.”
Jordan Randle, part of the class of 2020, wasn’t as lucky. With the coronavirus pandemic in full effect, his commencement was canceled; his family came together for a small socially distant gathering in his backyard. His student loan debt now stands around $30,000.
“I almost feel bad saying that,” he told ABC News, “because I’ve literally said that and some students have laughed, like, ‘I wish I had your case,’ which is sad. … Moving [out], getting my new car, trying to apply for another credit card — just doing those typical adult things have been a lot harder.”
Now entering the workforce, both Randle and Kirkland said that with the cost of higher education so high, the system needs to be re-examined — that as student loan payments loom, some people may not be able to find an adequately paying job to pay them off.
“There are a lot of people who are struggling or who have that degree and can’t find work. … They’re using every penny to pay off that debt — basically just going to school just to pay off that debt,” Kirkland said.
“A lot of people are stuck in so much debt that they can’t even do what they studied for,” Randle added. “So what’s the point?”
Federal student loans have been suspended and their interest waived since President Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March. Through an executive order, he extended the suspension for some federal student loans to the end of the year.
But when payments resume, many people still won’t have jobs that allow them to pay off their student loans, which total $1.7 trillion nationwide.
Lowell Ricketts, lead analyst for the St. Louis Federal Reserve’s Center for Household Financial Stability, said a degree is still worth getting but that the payoff isn’t nearly as guaranteed as it was a generation ago.
“[Student loans have] outpaced inflation and other growth in prices and wages for many, many Americans, and so, it gives us a sense of crisis,” Ricketts told ABC News. “The returns, relative to the generations that came before, are starting to weaken when it comes to wealth.”
For graduates of color, the center’s data shows the returns are even weaker. For Black Americans born as early as the 1960s, having a college or postgraduate degree was statistically insignificant to their wealth. On average, they essentially broke even.
“It points to some of the fundamental wealth gap sources as being deeply entrenched in our history, and shows how difficult it is for any one family or individual to escape from some of the systemic gaps in wealth accumulation that we see based on race and ethnicity,” Ricketts said.
Nick Ducoff is the founder of Edmit, a company that helps students navigate the financial aid process to get the maximum benefit. He says a college degree “is still worth it,” but that it’s important to know the financial responsibility you’re signing up for ahead of time.
“The average college graduate earns nearly $1 million more over the course of their lifetime than a comparable high school graduate without a degree,” Ducoff said. “So, generally speaking, it’s worth it. But the devil is always in the details.”
Since 1998, the average price of college tuition has risen 183%. <>> From 1989 to 2016, the collective balance of outstanding student loan debt for U.S. families rose from 8.9% to 22.4%. <<>>
Nearly 7 out of 10 students from the class of 2019 signed up for some form of student loan, graduating with an average debt of nearly $30,000. These graduates joined 44 million Americans with student debt, 11% of whom have loans that are at least 90 days delinquent or in default.
For some former students, the debt is too much to handle. Katrina Williams said she was working at a Starbucks, a call center and delivering mail on Saturdays, and she still couldn’t afford to pay a $700 monthly payment.
“Even if I worked three jobs until I paid nothing but my student loan debt … I still wouldn’t be able to pay it off within the next 30 years, and that’s why you’re just like, ‘I’m not gonna pay them,"” Williams said.
With over $100,000 in student loan debt, the stress of which she said caused her to constantly break out in hives, Williams moved to Japan to teach and, one day, just stopped paying her student loans. While she was relieved from her decision, she still feels the system doesn’t work.
“The days when I was 18 years old and my eyes were full of stars and I’m like, ‘I’m going away to college’ … I had no idea what all those giant numbers meant when I was a kid,” she said. “People are starting to realize, ‘Oh, those millennials aren’t just eating avocado toast to be lazy. They’re in crippling debt.”
Ducoff said people who see their student loan debt adding up should try to exhaust every repayment option available, like income-driven repayment plans, which can help minimize the burden.
“Make sure you understand what options are available with respect to addressing your student debt,” he said.
He also said that students aren’t alone.
“There’s a lot of, unfortunately, other students that have an awful lot of student debt,” he said, “and there are communities online that they can find and meet others who have been chipping away at that.”
Although he’s already begun working full time to help pay off his loan, Randle still wants to see the system overhauled.
“I think the issue with the student loan system is it is basically combusting. … There needs to be change in our academic system in general,” he said. “Because I think it still benefits people who come from wealth because that’s who it was made for.”
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