A few weeks ago, I convinced a student not to take out a loan. In my capacity as a loan specialist at my college, such acts of persuasion would seem to undermine the point of my job. After all, if I somehow convinced every student to fund their education through other means, I’d soon join the throng of unemployed Millennials.
Yet, I did it. Why? This particular student, like many others who attend America’s community colleges, seemed blissfully unaware of how the massive loans she receives now will affect her happiness in the future. She needed someone to tell her a frank truth: “You are borrowing too much.”
To my great surprise, she heeded my advice and agreed not to max out her student loans. In the wake of that conversation, I have ruminated about how to help resolve the never-ending whirlpool of debt, poor habits, and financial illiteracy that drowns too many students – many of whom are twenty-somethings like me.
I do not wish to bemoan the issues faced by students or castigate the current loan system; both have been done ad infinitum. Instead, I wish to lay out a vision of a cultural transformation within higher education. That is to say, American society needs to adopt a new way of thinking about borrowing that is holistic in scope while being personal and philanthropic. If we dare to change our approach, we may find unexpected success in helping individual students.
First, conversations about loans (or about any financial matter, really) should tend toward a holistic picture of the individual’s situation. The Millennial generation is renowned for its ability to compartmentalize life. This view has a pathological tendency, hurting individuals’ ability to make wise financial decisions. In my experience, when people pretend that their borrowing will not affect future incomes, living situations, and family life, they often borrow too much.
This illusion needs to be shattered in the financial aid conversation. To help students overcome their preference for easy money now versus repayment later, they should always be made aware of the cost of borrowing. Confronting Millennials with concrete examples of student loan costs may seem frightening, but the student who listens will reap great rewards for your small act of moral courage. Thinking about life as one package (that is, holistically) is not something at which the Millennial mind excels, and this weakness is crippling many financial futures.
Moreover, like every other generation that once walked the Earth, we Millennials also long for community with other human beings, though we undoubtedly conceal it underneath our technological wizardry. While desiring real relationships, we yet live in a relatively impersonal and atomized society – a faceless culture fueled by our obsession with the latest gadget.
Student loans reflect this reality — it is a titanic enterprise that touches millions upon millions of people. When a student complains that he feels like a number, can you blame them?
This was the case with the young lady whose borrowing habits so troubled me. She could have remained an anonymous ripple in the giant ocean of student loan borrowers had I done nothing. Yet her positive response proved, in a small way, her desire to learn; she appreciated my willingness to tell her the hard truth.