No, Not Every Millennial Is Drowning in $200k+ Debt

By Alex Chediak Published on December 31, 2015

Amanda Oliver wishes to tell us what every millennial wishes we understood about student loan debt. Not some millennials. Every millennial. And what exactly is that? Oliver wishes to dispel the myth that “we (millennials) all just went joyfully, hand in hand to Sallie Mae, and took on the student loans, and are just thrilled to pieces about it.” She actually breaks down her article into five myths, two of which are “This Sucks For Us” and “We Honestly Didn’t Feel Like We Had A Choice.” The gist of her piece is that college is too expensive and many millennials don’t have much money. So borrowing large amounts of money is the only way. But young adults are working hard to earn what they can. So give them some respect.

The main beef I have with Oliver’s article is the universality of her claims based on her extremely uncommon experience. I’m certain that not “every millennial” shares Oliver’s gripes because 30 percent of college graduates complete their undergraduate degrees with zero debt. And most millennials do, in fact, end their journey through higher education at that point. Oliver cites anecdotal data suggesting almost one in three women go on to get an additional degree, but let’s first pause and assess the situation for bachelor degree recipients.

Debt at graduation is below $49,000 for 90 percent of students completing bachelor degrees. Granted, that was 2012 data, but it’s highly accurate (coming from the ubiquitously cited and highly respected Mark Kantrowitz). Let’s assume it’s since ticked up a bit. It’s still galaxies away from the mind-blowing $253,000 in debt that Ms. Oliver racked up. For Oliver to suggest that her experience is anything like what “every millennial” faces is beyond unreasonable.

Oliver’s experience is also atypical in another sense. She earned a full-tuition scholarship for her undergraduate. She then — with the benefits of the additional wisdom and experience accrued from completing her bachelor’s degree under such generous terms, and with the benefit of being able to save her money that would have otherwise gone to tuition, and no doubt being familiar with the plights of her indebted undergraduate colleagues — opted to attend law school and borrow $253,000 over the course of what is typically a three year degree.

Consider how unusual this is. About 70 percent of high school graduates immediately go on to college. Of those who do, some end up with an AA or trade school certificate. Some may pursue college later. Long story short, about a third of 29 year old Americans held a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2012. So by no means is “everyone” even getting a bachelor’s degree! Oliver did, and did so debt free. Hats off to her on that. But then she did something that a relatively small minority of young Americans do: Attend graduate school. And borrow $253,000 to do so. Pursuing a field she chose having already earned a bachelor’s degree, with all the job prospects that others apparently find satisfactory.  And now she wishes to blame society because she “honestly didn’t feel she had a choice”?

This is ludicrous. In fact, Oliver is playing right into the stereotype that millennials are a bunch of whiners — something I refuse to believe, since the overwhelming majority of young adults exercise greater financial wisdom and assume a higher level of personal responsibility than Ms. Oliver. After all, you don’t just borrow $253,000 overnight. This was a conscious decision that Oliver made, semester after semester, with plenty of time for forethought before the process even began. Did Oliver embark on this high-debt path with a realistic expectation of her salary prospects? Many law school graduates do just fine financially, among them Barack Obama and Marco Rubio — both of whom finished law school in deep debt. If Oliver didn’t consider her earning prospects, whose fault is that?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for a lawyer was $114,970 in 2014. This kind of data, along with the Bureau’s estimated job outlook for the profession, was available to Oliver when she embarked on her graduate education.

There’s a better way: students need to arm themselves with an accurate sense of their earnings prospects before they take on debt. And they need to count their total debt (at graduation) before they accept any debt. If you take on high debt to pursue a lucrative field (like law or medicine), please have a realistic expectation of how long it will take you to pay off your loans. If you wish to reap the rewards of your profession, please have the decency to count the costs.


Alex Chediak’s book Beating the College Debt Trap: Getting a Degree Without Going Broke (Zondervan, 2015) helps students make informed decisions about how to pay less for college, earn more during college, and set themselves up for financial independence after college. Follow him on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.

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