My Student Loan Gratitude and Happiness
Recently there was a story on Marketplace about student loan debt. It banged on the student loan system a bit and although I agreed with some of the points, I felt like I needed to respond and point out that student loans can also be a good thing. And that I’m grateful and even happy about my loan debt. ~ Rev Kane
Dear Mr. Ryssdal,
That sounds funny to me, after to listening to so many episodes of Marketplace it feels odd not to call you Kai. I’m writing in respect to a story you did recently on student loans and to be completely open, I’m posting this letter as a post on my blog the Ministry of Happiness (Revkane.com) and I’ve posted the post link at the top of the email if you prefer to read this there.
My name is Michael Kane and I think I have a unique perspective on student loans and student loan debt issues. You see when I ended an excessively long college career (19 years) in 2002 I had $200,000 in educational debt. I owed $140,000 in federal student loans as well as $60,000 in short-term credit card dept. Additionally, both during my education and since, I have worked in higher education in various roles from academic advisor, instructor, program director and the last 15 years as a dean.
Most people assume that I am someone who would be rather upset about student loan debt and the system around it. And don’t get me wrong, I see the issues and problems with the providers and the way the system is administered and have my own ideas about changes that could be made. However, the major feeling I possess around student loans is gratitude and happiness. I grew up with a single mom who didn’t make a whole lot of money. When I first went to college in 1982 I was a smart kid who had some scholarships and had chosen a really good engineering school to go to, the Rochester Institute of Technology. It took me almost two years but I failed out of that college. I failed out due to a lack of maturity, some personal issues, and a really poor choice of major. Leaving the college, for the rest of whatever academic path I would follow I was after that on my own to pay for it. I’d blown the one chance my parents could afford to give me and I blew it up in fairly spectacular fashion.
After some time I got my shit together and started to move forward again. Again, I’m a smart guy, I got scholarships, I worked while I went to school, I became a resident assistant. Basically I did whatever I needed to do to get my education, because I knew it was my path out of a life I really didn’t want to live. But I also wandered through 14 undergraduate majors, got a master’s degree, then took a left turn through law school for a year and eventually through a PhD program that ended with me being ABD, all but dissertation. With all of this you might think again, that I’m bitter, I’m not. You see my educational journey was full of learning, amazing people and experiences. I’ve ended up working in the California Community College system. At this point, 15 years into my career, I have a great job. I make more money in a year than twice what my father ever made in a single year and four times more than my mother ever earned in a single year. Basically, in many ways, I am the very definition of the American Dream and I fear the last generation that will have the opportunity to be that.
So education, even in the twisty and nutty way I traveled through it, did what it promises to do, it changed my life for the better which of course then impacts the future generations of my family. So for that reason alone, I’m grateful to what education has done for me and I couldn’t have done it without the support of the student loans I received.
The story I recently heard on your program talked about how problematic it is that students come out with 20 or 30K in debt. How this keeps them from starting a family, buying a home, basically delaying all of the things required in the American Script. Not that I’m implying that doesn’t happen, but questioning how that is a problem, if in return for that delay people have climbed the economic ladder thus improving their future and their family’s future?
There have been a lot of problems with the way we do higher education in America. My career direction discussion in high school happened with my counselor, who also had been my little league coach, and it took five minutes. I was good in math and science, dad worked for a power company, tadaaaa electrical engineering. I said ok, filled out the applications and went to college. Now we know better, we’re reaching out to eighth graders and getting them started, doing programs like guided pathways that help students ease into more general areas before picking a final major. We work more to develop connections for the students, the number one reason they drop out is lack of connection to the college. We are also getting better coaching students through successful transfer and or job entry. Making sure students have work experiences and the type of things that make them more attractive to employers. And even in one of the least expensive higher education systems in America, we’re working on ways to make community college cost even less, or free. We’re even working with students at the high school level who know their pathway, through dual enrollment, to get these students done even more quickly and less expensively.
Even with all of this, students who come from modest or worse financial backgrounds, may still need assistance via student loans to achieve their educational goals. These are good student loans and good student loan debt. These students coming out with 20 or 30K in debt are not doing themselves a disservice, they’re investing in and changing their lives. I have sympathy for these folks but honestly, I doubt they are the ones complaining or upset about their loans. They likely get, as I do, the opportunity it has provided them.
The people I really have absolutely have no sympathy for, are people like a woman I read about who went $160,000 in debt to get a photography degree. I’m not saying people should only take loans to get high paying careers, or even match their loan debt reasonably to what their careers will pay, but it is a reasonable way to approach student loan debt. But to amass the type of debt I did, to go into a field with relatively little employment opportunity and low salaries for those who do get work seems personally irresponsible and not a reason to condemn the system. I recently met someone who has over $200K for a degree in holistic medicine to really drive home the point.
We need to improve the system. There have been some recent fixes to the teaching loan forgiveness programs and this is a good start. We need to change the for-profit nature of the student loan business and assure interest rates are at a reasonable level and don’t vary so wildly. We need to make sure that loan forgiveness programs are reasonable, easy to participate in and clearly state their criteria. I’m also not against some student loan forgiveness in general, but I admit that forgiving people who just made irresponsible decisions doesn’t sit well with me, even if having these programs in existence would benefit me and the remaining $80,000 in debt I still have.
Finally, educational systems are doing a better job of informing and educating students about the process, loans and the financial consequences of their actions, but we need to continue to get better and to make education more affordable.
So in summary, I think we need to not be so harsh on the idea of student loans, but do a better job with them, some of us have far better lives than would have ever been possible, without the existence of these types of programs. Thanks for listening ~ Michael Kane