Debt and Despair: Pennsylvania Students and Our Broken College Loan System

With Pennsylvania students leaving school with the second-highest debt in America thanks to runaway tuition, it's time to call our college loan system what it is: morally bankrupt.

My eldest daughter and her friends are frantic about college. They talk about it ad infinitum: how to bulk up their curricula vitae to improve their chances of acceptance (a nationally ranked gymnast and a determined student, my girl has now powered into team sports, figuring she’ll make a more competitive candidate); where they plan to matriculate (Columbia, candles lit); what their majors will be (economics, math or some to-be-determined science—because, they say, “That’s the only way you can get a good job”); how they’re going to pay for tuition (launching a line of homemade organic bath and body products for kids within the year, concocted in my kitchen. Awesome.).

These girls are 11 years old.

Friends, Philadelphians, can I get a witness? When I was that age, I gave no more thought to getting into college than I did to what it would be like to undergo an emergency C-section. What triggered this craziness? The trickle-down news apparatus and its daily reporting of joblessness, college debt, and the primacy of an educated workforce? The oversharing about financial stress in our households since the recession hit us like an anti-personnel bomb? Whatever it is, my sparkly-eyed sixth-grader now embodies a clear-eyed, albeit dismaying, moxie.

I admire it. Even as I can’t bear to tell her how many obstacles are still in her way.

We don’t have a prayer of being able to swing a full ride for her, never mind her two siblings. Ergo, we’ll all incur debt—a lot of it. Since we’d rather sell our pancreases on the black market than deny our children a college education, my girls’ father, as well as my husband and I, will willingly empty our savings and 401(k) accounts (if we had any, which we don’t), take out loans we’ll need to mortgage our modest homes to the hilt to pay back, eat cat food to send them to college, especially if they get into eye-wateringly expensive top-tier schools. Thusly insolvent in our golden years, we’ll all have to move in with the kids. Who may wish we’d sold our pancreases instead.

If you’re like me—and I suspect you are—I know what you’re thinking: This is what state schools are for. Indeed, not that long ago, the state school was the true “safety net,” the perfectly fine, solid alternative for those of us who wished to keep our pancreases. But it turns out Pennsylvania can lay claim as one of the highest college debt capitals in the nation. Pennsylvania graduates carry, on average, the second-highest load of college debt in the entire country, after New Hampshire. Penn State and Temple students graduate with an average of about $33,000 of debt.

American college graduates currently carry more than one trillion dollars in outstanding student debt. That’s more than the national debt of Sweden. That’s more than the banking bailout of 2008. When colleges, the White House and the culture at large proclaim that there is no price tag on an educated citizenry, I’m not the only one who’s boiling over with this response: How the hell are we supposed to pay for it?

 [Click here to see the student-debt load for Philadelphia-area colleges]


Last fall, I had an experience that crystallized these questions. I was teaching an undergraduate class at Temple. Knowing how hard it is to earn a living as a journalist, I almost felt bad about training kids for a field that’s often soul-cru­shingly competitive and, moreover, morphs relentlessly into newfangled formats that pay ever more poorly. But I admire Temple, and in my experience, its students work hard, on and off campus. When I went there from 1987 to 1989, everyone I knew had a job to cover the yearly tuition (then about $3,500). I’d paid my way there by working as an 18-year-old cub reporter. In part because of that, it seemed to me that the only ethical way I could teach journalism was to encourage students not to wait until after graduation to publish, but to earn money writing now, deploying their edge: youth. After all, editors want to know what 18-to-21-year-olds think, and those who can masterfully articulate their own experiences and put them into well-reported, fact-checked, zeitgeist-y context have a good shot at getting work.

Sitting in the front row was a 20-year-old student named Brandon Baker, who was clearly down with that line of thinking. Intently taking notes, he was the first to speak up when I asked students to offer topics for story ideas. A self-possessed junior, he described working at four part-time jobs (two of them directly journalism-related) for living expenses and tuition not covered by loans and financial aid. He was, he said, already $23,000 in debt, and expected to owe $33,000 by the time he graduated. The classroom ricocheted with similar frustrations. Students said they had to rush to write papers and skip study time so they could get to work, only to receive less than stellar marks. When they showed up for work exhausted, bosses threatened that they weren’t performing adequately.

Brandon lingered after class, and I asked him how he felt about being a journalism major. He said, frankly but without self-pity, that he felt “deceived.” Looking back on it, he said, when he’d visited Temple as a high-school senior from Waynesboro, financing tuition never came up: “It was more like an open house with a realtor,” he said, with guides showcasing the campus facilities and academic programs. He received no financial advice other than that of his high-school guidance counselor, who suggested he go to community college. But Brandon wanted to be a journalist: “I knew that if I was going to have a shot at it, I had to be in the city,” he said. “Because of my family’s financial situation, I also had to go to a public university, and that meant Temple.”

He went on to say that the financial aid forms made little sense to him at 17 years old, nor to his parents—an electrician and a human resources staffer, neither of whom graduated from college. He filled them out anyway and received a government loan, to add to a few small scholarships from hometown businesses. But when his parents dipped into their savings and refinanced their mortgage to squeeze out a contribution, he cried, he said—“partly because I never knew they believed in me so much, but also because that’s a huge amount of money for them, and I feel terrible about it.”

But he also feels terrible that the career options he’d been told were open to him as a journalism major weren’t squaring with the realities he now confronted. “I remember going into my first class and hearing about all the opportunities that would be available to me, hearing success stories from guest lecturers,” he said. Three years later, Brandon hasn’t been able to afford to take on as many “opportunities,” like unpaid magazine and newspaper internships, as he would have wanted. But he hustled and secured paid work in the field: copy-editing for the Temple News and writing news briefs for a regional business magazine, as well as content for various websites. “I’m very grateful to start my career while I’m still a student, but I wish I’d understood more about debt and career choices earlier,” he said. “I’m also realizing that this may be as good as it gets—and that I’m earning a degree in a field that might not ever earn me enough money to pay off all this debt.”

He faced what almost every college student in the United States does now. And it smacks of a deep absence of ethics.