The Noose Around our Necks: A Young Couple’s Crushing College Debt

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Head shot (1)My wife Niki and I grew up in San Antonio. Not the San Antonio we currently occupy, the one embracing urban renaissance and an influx of culture and youth, but the one around Loop 1604: the suburban sprawl of malls, chain restaurants, and cookie cutter homes.

We both grew up in two-parent households. We both had fathers who went to work every day while our mothers stayed home to teach us, love us, and raise us. We were told we could be anything we wanted – always encouraged to go to college and told that it would open doors. We were encouraged to reach for the best universities, that cost should never be a barrier.

We both recently returned to San Antonio after I spent a couple of years earning a master's degree at Vanderbilt. Now we both face over $100,000 in college debt with few realistic ways to conquer it.

John and his wife, Niki, at John's graduation ceremony at Trinity University.

John and his wife, Niki, at John's graduation ceremony at Trinity University.

Neither Niki nor I regret our decisions. We both went to Trinity University and we both pursued graduate degrees – she a Masters of Art in Teaching from Trinity and I a Masters of Theological Studies from Vanderbilt. We loved the private school experience and we will always value the education we received.

Niki’s and my frustration with our current debt doesn’t come from the fact that we have to pay for our education but rather from the fact that even with copious amounts of financial aid, we walked out of college newly married, in our early 20’s, and with a home owner’s sized noose hanging around our necks. For us, the difficulty is not so much in paying these obligations off. It is that we have to delay living in order to do so.

John and his wife, Niki, at Vanderbilt.

John and his wife, Niki, at Vanderbilt.

After graduation, Niki and I got married and moved to Nashville so that I could complete a master’s program. While Niki’s education at a top rate teaching school enabled her to find work, we still had to live modestly in order to stay afloat on our loan interest. It was during this time that we started to feel the most anxiety about our future. The biggest frustration with the whole experience was that even though the student loans were being paid, it was like paying a second rent. Over the course of our two years away, we ended up making very little headway.

Upon our return to San Antonio, we thought things would get easier. We assumed that I would be able to find work fairly quickly and that we would really be able to begin attacking the debt. However, even though I firmly believe in the critical thinking skills the liberal arts schools I attended taught me, it is difficult proving it to employers in the current economy. This makes our position even more tough as the grace period for repaying my loans ends, and my debts are added to those of Niki's that we already are paying.

Both of us are now working, but what we earn goes almost entirely to nothing other than our college loans. We are looking at that kind of lifestyle for the next four or five years.

Our story isn’t unique, and many our age face similar financial struggles and burdens. Many are forced to move back in with parents to alleviate the pressures of loans, while others are compelled to take jobs for which they are over qualified or hate in order to just make enough money to get up the next day and do it all over again.

We watched our parents go off to their white-collar jobs every day and we listened as they complained about it at night. We were told we could be architects, writers, teachers, and lawyers and we went off to college with these ideas in our heads. We majored in the liberal arts and we studied topics like Art History, Sociology, Philosophy, and English. We were told to learn what we enjoy, follow our dreams and help make a better world.

The problems with this direction, for many of us, come after graduation.  According to lasts year’s figures, of college loan borrowers, 1 in 4 borrowing students leave undergrad  with more than $30,000 in debt.

crazy student loans 2011-q2

This overwhelming amount of debt prevents many of us from doing what we were always taught to do and what we were always told we could do. It forces us to choose taking a job we don’t feel led to do. We forsake our calling to become the creative, innovate entrepreneurs the 21st century needs. Debt forces us to take the kind of jobs we watched our parents complain about rather than jobs that provide services to those in need.

While ours is not the first generation to face college debt, we are the first to face it in such exorbitant amounts. During my four years  as an undergrad student, my tuition costs rose by about 6% annually. Admittedly, I was lucky. Trinity was generous with financial aid and looked for every way to help out. However, even given that I had parents who attended the university and had left with debt, my expectations about the amount I would owe and my abilities to pay it off were a bit naïve.

This is the new reality for many post-college 20 somethings who happen to be liberal arts majors. Supremely educated, ambitious, imminently employable, looking to help out rather than bring in lots of money, but saddled with more debt out of school than almost anyone from our parents' generation and forced to pass up great opportunities because they just don’t pay enough to help us conquer our obligations. This last fact became most  disappointingly apparent to me when I recently had to turn down a job working with a wonderful nonprofit called the San Antonio Club House because it was not able to offer enough for my wife and I to service our loans.

College debt is the crisis facing college graduates. It is unsustainable and it has far-reaching negative implications for the future health of our country and economy. If we want our nation’s young creative minds to move into positions of leadership and to develop the tools needed for the 21st century world then it is an issue we must begin to address. Until something changes, colleges and universities will continue to graduate people like Niki and I who cannot pursue our passions because $100,000 or more in college debt is our reality.

It's a trap, not just for us, but for all of society.

John Burnam is a first time contributor to the Rivard Report and an independent nonprofit consultant currently working with San Antonio Christian Dental and The Louise Batz Foundation for Bedside Advocacy. He works in patient safety, community health and well-being, and nonprofit development. He graduated from Trinity University with a Bachelors in Art History and Classic and then from Vanderbilt University  with a masters degree in theological studies.  Prospective employers can check him out on LinkedIn.

(Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group has performed consulting service for Trinity University, but does not publish sponsored stories.)

Related Stories on the Rivard Report:

The Freelance Generation: A Young American Calls Out ‘The American Dream” September 2012

The New American Dream: The Uncomfortable Reality of Diminished Expectations September 2012

The $10,000 Degree: Backlash to a Generation Crushed by College Debt May 2012


25 thoughts on “The Noose Around our Necks: A Young Couple’s Crushing College Debt

  1. People should think about the costs of going to college before they go. I was always baffled by the people going to Baylor who majored in education. They set themselves up for failure by paying 4 to 5 times more than what it would cost at a state school.

  2. Welcome to the 21st century. We taught everyone they should get an education. But we didn’t teach them the economics. If you decide to go to a “top rated” school and blow 100k on a 4 year degree be ready for a house payment. Colleges need to prep students to think more about this.

    I know in my program I have my students thinking about it.

    I know from personal experience. I pay $1,200 a month in student loans. Then again I got a BS, Masters and PhD. I also did whatever I wanted in college because I always had the money to do so. It was worth it for me and I am very employable because of it.

    Liberal arts colleges need to teach their students how to be employable. Notice I do no say they need to give their students technical training for on the job. I believe college is here for higher learning, where theory and practice can meld. Where discussion and debate take place.

    But so often when students graduate they leave not being prepped for “the real world”. In my department I teach “Senior Portfolio” where I prepare my students for exiting college. We go over real world issues and devise plans for them to obtain their dream jobs as well as have backup plans.

    Too many colleges do not do this type of leg work and it is something I believe will have to change over the coming years for universities to be viable in a post Information Age.

  3. I’ve always told my children, “I don’t care if you love making balloon animals, if you love it, stick with it, don’t let others tell you it’s silly, that you need to do something that makes a lot of money. Follow your dream, you will be happy and good at your job.” I would rather be happy going to work everyday, than own the most expensive bike in the world and never have time to ride it!

  4. Good article. Young people, and their parents, need to carefully consider whether a private school degree in a non-technical major makes economic sense. We have a sense of entitlement here in the states that everything will just work out, and we don’t think through the potential downside of significant decisions such as a $100,000 degree in a field where the average worker makes $30,000.

    I don’t mean this to chastise the author, but we are responsible for our own decisions. Should I have children, they will attend two years of community college to get their pre-reqs and then two years at a high quality state school for the degree. The degree will be just as valuable as one from a private school, and at a fraction of the cost.

  5. The Rivard Report is interested in hearing from any former college students who fell short of earning a degree yet incurred significant debt. We’d like to publish a first person account of how you are grappling with that debt while earning less than you would be earning with a degree, or in the event you have defaulted on that debt. Write us at

  6. John and Niki, You are educated young people. It is so unfortunate that at this time society does not seem to recognize the difference between an educated person and a person trained for some specific work environment. Student loans are an enormous burden; a Trinity education is well worth sacrifice. I think back to my early married days; we lived a very frugal lifestyle, not because we had student loans, but because salaries were low in the 50s. Eating out and trips were out of the question. Other things we did or did not do sound archaic today, but that is the way it was. I believe expectations of current life style are discouraging. We had no such expectations. In the long run our educations served us well. We intend to help our grandsons with their enormous tuitions. Both are smart and deserve the best education. Fortunately a lifetime of careful expenditures has made that possible for us. Also it made possible a Trinity education for our daughter. I know you will both be very successful and will contribute to society. Don’t get too discouraged with your situation. You are educated for life. All the best.

  7. There are quite a few trends that have conspired against today’s recent graduates. Among them are:
    1. Tuition costs have risen at 2 to 3 times inflation for about four decades, putting further pressure on the use of student loans. Many factors have combined to make this so, but to summarize, market forces have not been allowed to act on this.
    2. Debt has been “de-stigmatized” all across our society, so students think it is normal to run up $50,000+ of student loans. Their parents may have paid them off easily, but their debts were lower. Debt is a big problem across America, this is one facet.
    3. Prolonged recession has made it difficult to get jobs that pay well enough for form previous levels of student loan debt, let alone today’s higher levels.
    4. Student loans have been almost entirely federalized, which means that they are not bankrupt-able: Declaring bankruptcy will not relieve you of repaying them in full.
    5. Few are talking about this problem, and devising strategies to avoid massive debt upon graduation. Those strategies exists (Lower cost state and community colleges, working through college even if it drags it out, etc.)

    Kudos on the authors and to this newsletter for bringing it to the public’s attention.

    • Great comment, Ken. I read a statistic today embedded in a WSJ article that said that the national $1 trillion student debt has doubled in the last five years. That’s a runaway train. –RR

  8. Good luck! It took me several years (after graduation) before I was able to move to a much higher tax bracket and even then I was unhappy because I was working the whole time. Now, I am a wantrepreneur at the moment, so I’m working on becoming an actual entrepreneur and developing my two new startups and achieve dreams I had years ago. Don’t Give up!

  9. Respectfully, you become educated at someone’s expense: your family/parents, your own, or someone else (lender). The first two may take years longer but allow you to either pay as you go or incur much less debt. The third requires payment with interest which you chose. “Delaying living” is commonly known as the repayment period.
    ‘Future leadership’ should break the mold of feigning shock at the entirely predictable consequences of idealistic traps of their own making; it’s unbecoming.

  10. I appreciate everyone’s thoughts and opinions, whether you agree or disagree, thanks for reading and sharing.

    Nelson, I completely understand what you are saying. I am very grateful for all of the funding I received in school. In the article, I suggest that I am not at all complaining about repaying my debt. You are right, I earned it and it comes with the education. My qualms with the system are about something different. First, I chose the schools I did because I felt they put me in the best position to succeed in life. Yes, that means that there will be more “delay” on the front end as I pay for the cost. However, the problem is twofold. On the one hand, the student loan system is unsustainable. I don’t pretend to suggest that we don’t need to look at other education opportunities and I think the decision to go to trade school, junior college, state school for four years, or pursue a Phd needs to be one that every student spends a great deal of time thinking about. However, I think there is a major issue with the way older generations view ours. On the one hand, we are told to get great educations and contribute to society in a meaningful way and other the other hand, a large segment of the population chastises us for acting like entitled brats when we aren’t given the opportunity to contribute to that society in a meaningful way. I don’t have any expectation to live like my parents or anyone else in their 50’s for that matter. But you need to understand that the increasing cost of college is a major issue. Either everyone does as you suggest and works for 8 years while paying there way through college which would tie students to their parents and other providers even longer and contribute to the problem of dependence in our generation, or we do something about the debt. Sure, it is partially my fault for not researching the economic impact of college as a 17 year old but it is also the fault of our schools and others for not suggesting that I do so ( I think it is great that we are having that conversation now but it is too late for many of us who were just blindly told to go to school and that things would work out). I’ll give you an example. I have a great friend who is just about to finish getting a law degree from Harvard. Because law schools are competitive and don’t give out much funding, he is walking out with almost a quarter million in debt. Yes, he already has a great job working for major business law firm and yes, this will enable him to pay that debt off in 10 years. However, it is ridiculous that he has to take that education and work for a business law firm pushing papers and suing companies when all he wants to do is represent those in poverty who don’t have access to the kinds of lawyers who graduate from Harvard. Yes, he is to blame for choosing the school he did but by not helping these kinds of students out with their debt, the kind that are supremely educated and talented but want to use their talents to contribute to socially just causes, aren’t we encouraging people to put money above everything else?

    Aren’t we hurting society by enabling a system that prevents these kinds of students from doing work that could serve the greater good. Yes, they could return to that kind of work at a later point in life but how fare is that? the 20’s is the best time to do that kind of work precisely because it is the time when you are not saddled with a house and kids and are in a position to actually invest in these non-profits and social causes.

    I completely agree with your point if we were talking about students who actually wanted to come out of school and start living like their parents but we are not. I am talking about a segment of my generation that was taught to use their education to benefit those around them but can’t precisely because the same people who told them to get that education now think they should “suck it up” and deal with the ramifications of their choices. That, to me, seems like a pretty crazy double standard.

  11. We agree on some points. Miming a term, the industrial educational complex has far oversold its services for too long, often with the well-meaning but impractical collusion of parents and peers. That students can exit high school without once undergone a course in basic finance is immoral and unethical, if indeed the goal is to ‘educate’. Only a literal handful of countries spend as much per student as the U.S., but we’ve received no perceptible improvement of achievement. Still, the educational monolith demands more while erecting barricades to competition, oversight and fiscal discipline. Fearing being outcast as “not caring about children” and “the future”, we citizens who fund the whole business – and make no mistake, a business it is – allow it.

    I think the problem not so much the loan system, but the cost/value ratio of said education. You’ve 18 years of it and during the period of accumulating $100K of debt, never once practically assessed the consequence; why is that? We are a nation preferring to defer most everything to some expert or another, and relieve ourselves of having to draw our own lines in the sand. Life is generally not fair or unfair; it’s just life.

    The best piece of advice I can give any young person is actively be objective and rely upon your mind, likely the equal of 99% of experts who depend upon your abdication of critical thought. You will face criticism for swimming against the tide, but have fewer disappointments in life and the satisfaction of owning yourself. Good luck.

  12. Great Article.

    “We watched our parents go off to their white-collar jobs every day and we listened as they complained about it at night. We were told we could be architects, writers, teachers, and lawyers and we went off to college with these ideas in our heads. We majored in the liberal arts and we studied topics like Art History, Sociology, Philosophy, and English. We were told to learn what we enjoy, follow our dreams and help make a better world.”

    I think that this paragraph does a great job in expressing the gap that exists between baby boomer expectations and current market realities. The relative value of a college degree has decreased as the percentage of degree holders in the US increased.

    The current reality is that there are too many college graduates that believe that they’ll fall into manager-type positions or “manager-in-training” type positions. What we really need are more STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) graduates, so bad that the US is working towards importing people from other countries because the US supply doesn’t match the demand. Student loans should be tied to degree programs. Market forces aren’t allowed to work when an BS in engineering and BA in French Literature receive the same rate and loan amounts.

    I’ve had a pretty amazing experience with my own education, and I hope that others might follow my lead.

    During high school, I took advantage of dual credit where instead of AP HS classes, I took local community college classes that would apply to HS and college credit. By the time that I graduated HS, I had 30 hrs completed. In college, I went to a top 50 in-state public university, majoring in mathematics. I had a passion for marketing in HS and the few courses in college, but I felt my future could be made in math. I worked nights at a hotel during college to help pay for rent and tuition. Before I graduated I worked an internship in the field I wanted to go into, and ultimately graduated in 3 years.

    I graduated with 0 debt, was able to obtain a great job, and now I’m able to live my life the way I want to.

    Everyone has their own path. What worked for me, might not work for others, but I feel like there are parts of my story that can work for others. Community colleges, going to public universities, working during college, GETTING INTERNSHIPS, graduating on time, getting a STEM degree, are all ways to be smart about college, but most important are realistic expectations.

    John, thank you for your story. Hopefully, with more recent college graduates telling our stories, future college attendees can be better informed.

  13. Good article. Both Trinity and Vanderbilt are great, no, wonderful schools. Suggest you do a follow up article tracking your peers at Trinity that completed a bachelors and masters in accounting. Most likely the results are much different.

    Your high school and university advisors should be taken to task – no, taken to the woodshed. Early on, return on investment of your effort, time and dollars should be assessed so that young students might make an informed decision.

    I was very lucky. Out of high school I received an athletic scholarship. When asked re major my initial reply was teaching so that I might coach. My high school coach, who deserves all the credit for my scholarship, replied “NO!!! Get a business degree, become successful and then you will be able to coach who and when you choose ”

    He was correct.

    Best of fortune with your career and path in life for you and your family.


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